Ruta Kahate was in the middle of teaching her popular weekend cooking class and was going over the dozens of spices, steps, and long soaking and cooking times characteristic of traditional Indian recipes when a student piped up: "Are you kidding me? I want to cook Indian food, but there is no way I have time for all that. I have a job and kids!" Kahate, a longtime Bay Area chef who divides her time between leading culinary tours to India, running a restaurant in Goa, and writing cookbooks, knew all too well where the student was coming from.
Life gets hectic for Kahate, too. Her schedule rarely allows her time to make the elaborate regional dishes of India for her family, which tend to rely on a long list of spices and be labor-intensive.
"My family loves the complex flavors," says the vinyasa practitioner and mother of six- and nine-year-old daughters. "But it's hard to do it all in one evening." So Kahate found herself adapting the traditional recipes she learned in India, streamlining ingredient lists and working in some simple shortcuts and make-ahead steps. The result? Dishes packed with flavor that come together quickly. "My cooking is about simplicity, about being able to cook for my family and make something that tastes great," she says.
Take the Spice Route
It's no wonder Indian food is so flavorful: The number of dried spices it uses runs into the hundreds, few of which you'll find in the typical supermarket. A single garam masala mix that goes into a curry, for example, might be made up of dozens of dried chilies (introduced to India in the 16th century by European spice traders), cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, and so on. Those dried spices sometimes play in the background of the dish; at other times, they dominate. Together, they give food big, bold, yet nuanced flavor as well as deep color. In the warm climes of India, spices are also used to keep food from spoiling and are valued for their therapeutic properties, says Kahate.
Scientists are starting to explore the health benefits of Indian spices, says Wendy Bazilian, a registered dietitian and the author of The SuperfoodsRx Diet. She notes that spices contain vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. "The traditional Indian diet has 6 to 10 times more spices, both fresh and dried, than the standard American diet," she says. "Some of the early science shows that areas of India with the highest consumption per capita of yellow curries also had some of the lowest rates of memory disorders, such as dementia and Alzheimer's. In a world where we're often asked to reduce things, it's nice to get to add something. Spices' day job is adding flavor, but they also offer health-promoting properties."
Kahate adapted her recipes using only the Indian spices most commonly found in American grocery stores, including cayenne, coriander, cumin, turmeric, mustard seeds, cinnamon, fennel seeds, fenugreek, cardamom, and cloves. Combine them into dry or wet masalas and store them in your pantry or refrigerator so you'll always be one step ahead.
Cooking with the most healthful Indian spices will add exotic flavor to whatever you're making, says Kahate, but if you can't track down something that a recipe calls for (like curry leaves), that's perfectly OK. "Just don't try to replace it with something else," she says. "Fenugreek is an amazing spice. I adore it, but there is no substitute. So if I don't have it on hand, I'll still make the dish. It just won't have the same dimension. But it'll still be delicious."
In addition to dry spices, Indian cuisine also relies on fresh herbs and aromatics for its flavor. Every Sunday, Kahate takes a few minutes to blend fresh ginger or garlic with a little canola oil and water to make pastes that she can use in her cooking throughout the week—say, to sauté with tomatoes, bell peppers, and paneer. (Try this recipe for Gingery Paneer With Bell Peppers.) "It makes preparing a complex dish faster because you don't have to peel and grind the garlic," says Kahate. "It's amazing how much time having a few things premixed in your fridge will save."
Browning onions days ahead of time is another key shortcut to complex-tasting recipes. Classic, long-simmering curries have a homogenous quality to them, with onions that tend to dissolve into the background of the sauce while adding a distinct umami (savory) flavor that's hard to re-create in 30 minutes.
You can get a jump-start by thinly slicing and browning onions in canola oil for about 20 minutes until they're crisp. Stored in a glass container in the fridge, the brown, crunchy onions are good to go whenever the occasion strikes—for example, to top a cinnamony wheat pilaf dotted with chana dahl (split chickpeas) and fresh mint leaves. (Try this recipe for Cracked-Wheat Pilaf.)
Having flavorful made-ahead staples on hand encourages Kahate to cook beyond strictly Indian dishes. She might spread ginger paste over potatoes before roasting them or stir a little garlic paste into scrambled eggs in the morning. "It will inspire you to make or maybe create your own dish because you have a few items already made-up, and you can just start imagining how the flavors will go together," she says. "Sometimes I'll slice eggplant, smear on red masala, and bake it instead of making a typical curry eggplant dish. It inspires creativity in the kitchen."
Not all Indian dishes demand hours of cooking. The southern and western states, says Kahate, are known for quick sautés of fresh seasonal vegetables with a few key spices. In the summer, for example, pattypan squash needs just minutes in a hot wok with oil and spices to create a fresh-tasting vegetable accompaniment to lentils and raita. (Try this recipe for Garlicky Pattypan Squash.)
And while traditional recipes for vegetarian stews usually call for soaking the beans and legumes overnight, Kahate says those instructions are relics of a time when dried beans were perhaps older and stored in a hotter climate. Just a quick soak—bringing beans to a boil and letting them sit for 30 minutes to an hour—is enough to soften most varieties. This works especially well if you're dreaming of making an easy, creamy chana dahl, sweetened as is the custom in the state of West Bengal.
You are likely to find chana dahl in Indian grocery stores, online, and in most health food shops. Depending on the age of the legumes and humidity in your area, some chana dahl needs only 20 minutes in boiling water to cook.
Otherwise, you can simply cover 1 cup of the bright-yellow legumes in 3 cups of hot water for 30 minutes. That gives you plenty of time to set a beautiful table and prepare everything else—like warming a hot, spicy oil cooked with cumin, coriander, fennel, mustard seeds, and turmeric in a small saucepot for 5 to 10 seconds.
Bring the legumes to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. You'll have a soft dahl that's ready to be topped with the oil and garnished with toasted coconut and golden raisins for a quick dinner that's sweet, spicy, and just right.
Have flavorful mixtures on hand to jump-start your weeknight cooking.
Garlic Paste: Blend 3 or 4 heads of peeled garlic with 1 tablespoon of canola oil and 2 tablespoons of water. Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Ginger Paste: Blend several inches of raw peeled ginger (about 1 1/4 cup) with 2 tablespoons of canola oil and 3 tablespoons of water. Store in a glass jar in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
Brown Onions: In a large sauté pan, cook 2 thinly sliced medium-size yellow onions in 1/2 cup of canola oil over medium heat until they turn dark brown and crisp. Drain on paper towels, and store in a glass jar in the fridge for up to a month.
Mix dry and wet spice blends ahead of time for curries, sautéed veggies, or any other food you want to add more pep to, suggests Kahate. There's no "correct" ratio of spices, so play around with the amounts.
Dry Garam Masala: In a dry skillet over medium heat, stir 1/2 to 2 tablespoons each of cardamom seeds, cumin seeds, coriander, black peppercorns, cloves, and fennel seeds with a cinnamon stick and a pinch of salt until fragrant. Blend in a spice grinder. Store at room temperature.
Wet Red Masala: Grind 1/2 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon each of cumin seeds, cloves, and black peppercorns, along with a cinnamon stick. Add 1/2 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons each of cayenne, paprika, turmeric, ginger paste, garlic paste, apple cider vinegar, and sugar. Refrigerate for up to 1 week.
Pep up your cooking and fortify your health with these tasty pantry staples.
Cayenne: A teaspoon of cayenne contains 15 percent of your daily quota of vitamin A.
Cinnamon: This spice has insulin-like qualities that help your body move sugar out of the bloodstream. And since it's slightly sweet, you might find that it cuts the need to add sugar to dishes.
Cumin: This smoky spice has antibacterial properties and is a source of iron and flavonoids. Some research suggests it may ease respiratory problems and rheumatoid arthritis.
Fennel: This seed contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that may help digestion.
Fenugreek: A teaspoon of this umami-rich spice provides 7 percent of your daily iron requirements.
Mustard: These tiny seeds contain compounds called glucosinolates, which have anticancer properties.
Turmeric: The active ingredient in this spice, curcumin, may promote cognitive health as we age as well as reduce the risk of cancer.
Get the Recipes:
Garlicky Pattypan Squash
Gingery Paneer With Bell Peppers
Lauren Ladoceour is a senior editor at Yoga Journal.