Indian cuisine is celebrated the world over and is unmistakable due to its unique and pungent taste and aroma. Most Indian cooks grind their own spices, and despite the industrialization of our food system, most Indian cooking is still done from scratch from wholesome, natural ingredients. Indian home cook, Jyotsna Kochhar, discusses Indian cooking and the process of creating a traditional Indian meal.
At what age did you begin learning to cook? What dishes did you start with?
I started cooking at age 26 (after I came to the US). Of course I used to observe my older sisters and Mom cook. But I never really wanted to do the cooking. I made lentil soup, vegetables, and other Indian dishes.
Do you grind your own spices? If so, why?
Yes, I like to grind my own spices. I grind enough for 6 months. I keep a small amount on the shelf and save the rest in the refrigerator. I can control spiciness better when I grind them.
Could you describe the process of creating a traditional Indian meal?
A traditional Indian meal consists of three items: a vegetable dish, a lentil or meat dish, and rice or bread (Indian chapati, or roti). Many people eat yogurt with their meal.
I crush the spices (my favorite ones are: Cumin and Coriander). I crush these separately and store them in jars. I use these in most of my dishes. The spices vary based on type of dish being prepared. The amount of red pepper can be varied, not every Indian dish has pepper in it.
For a vegetable dish, I wash and cut the vegetables, add ginger and garlic to oil in a heated pan, add spices, stir fry for a short time, then add the vegetables.
For lentils (there are many varieties), I add turmeric, crushed garlic and ginger to boiling water, then add the lentils and boil for the proper time. In the meantime, I fry onions, spices, tomatoes in oil in a small frying pan. When lentils are ready, the onion, spice, tomato mixture is added and the dish is ready.
What would you say are the five essential ingredients of Indian cooking?
Cumin Seeds, Coriander Seeds, Turmeric, Salt, Chili pepper or Black Pepper. I also use onions and tomatoes in my dishes quite a bit.
Convenience food such as pre-made sauces, frozen food items and chemically modified ingredients are the norm in most kitchens these days. Is the same true in India today?
No, that is not the case with Indian food. In India, we make everything fresh. People cook fresh and enough for just one meal.
However in the US, I do a lot of preparation ahead of time. I blend fresh home tomatoes in the fall season and store in freezer bags for the whole year. I chop fresh beans, okra, bell peppers and several other vegetable in the fall and freeze them for the year. This way I have fresh organic vegetables (home grown or bought in the farmers market). I prepare homemade Indian cheese and put it in the freezer.
What would you say sets Indian cooking apart from other cuisines?
The mixture of different spices (not just hot peppers).
When you hear the words “Indian cuisine”, what are the first 5 dishes you think of?
My favorite North Indian dishes are:
Palak paneer (Spinach with Cheese),
Okra with onions,
Rajma (Kidney beans),
Stuffed bread (paratha),
What is your favorite recipe to cook?
Whole okra with onions
Besan Poora (chick-pea pancakes)
For specific recipes, visit http://www.neurophys.wisc.edu/ravi/recipes
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