By Monica Bhide
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
To make authentic tandoori chicken, first you have to get your hands on a traditional beehive-shaped oven. Besides carefully measuring and grinding a good dozen spices to achieve the right balance for the marinade, you have to maneuver the chicken into the hot tandoor without burning yourself.
Want to make the South Indian crepes called dosas? Soak lentils and rice overnight, then grind them, then let them ferment -- again overnight. Twelve hours later, if the temperature is right and the batter has risen, you can finally heat up your skillet.
No wonder students in my Indian cooking classes tell me they're afraid to try the cuisine at home. Indian cooking is all about alluring flavors that reflect the nation's diverse landscape, climate and cultures, but with its long lists of ingredients, involved techniques and from-scratch spice mixes, batters and marinades, "Indian cooking can at times be pretty cumbersome," says Balraj Bhasin, owner of the Indian restaurant Bombay Curry Co. in Alexandria. Creating everything from scratch yields sumptuous rewards, but it also requires time, patience and detailed knowledge of techniques.
After first moving to Washington in 1992, I would travel to India and cart back suitcases full of spices, spice mixes, pickles, lentil wafers and even curry leaves, because local availability was limited. Today, ingredients are easily found at Indian markets, at Korean stores and at such chains as Giant, Whole Foods, Costco and Wegmans. Moreover, food manufacturers and even local grocers are now tempting people to cook easy Indian -- a concept that once was oxymoronic -- through the use of time-saving products.
More than 1,200 Indian food products have been introduced in the United States since 2000 -- almost 300 of them in 2006, according to Mintel, a market research firm. "These products not only allow more diversity in household meals, but also an easy alternative to learning how to prepare more complicated dishes," says Mintel analyst Christy Brinnehl.
Dhaneshan Thakkekara, manager at All World Groceries in Vienna, says some of his best-selling products, such as ready-made potato-stuffed breads, onion breads, nans, tandoori breads and spiced breads from Deep or Pillsbury, "did not even exist a few years ago." He proclaims the value of the popular tandoori spice mixes. "If you don't want to buy 10 separate spices to make the mix, then just buy this!" he says. "There is something for every type of cook."
The products, he says, are appreciated not only by American clients newly interested in the cuisine but also by people of Indian origin. More than 110,000 Indians live in the Washington area, and many of them want to enjoy their favorite luscious curries even on weeknights. But instant Indian isn't just for the home consumer, Bhasin says: Even industry supply stores such as Restaurant Depot now carry ready-made panir, the versatile Indian cheese.
Cookbook authors, too, are embracing packaged products. "I wanted to introduce people to Indian food as I know it," says New York-based author and entrepreneur Maya Kaimal, who introduced a line of refrigerated simmering sauces a couple of years ago. "I want them to enjoy it on a weeknight instead of thinking of it as a weekend project." Kaimal's high-end gourmet sauces -- Tamarind Curry, Tikka Masala, Coconut Curry and Vindaloo -- are available at Whole Foods Market and Costco.
Not all instant Indian products are created equal. Some spice mixes are too strong or too weak, lacking the right balance. Bhasin advises some trial-and-error experimenting. "As the potency of spices varies considerably, you will have to go by feel and use the spice mixes to your individual liking," he says. "Don't be disheartened. It usually takes an attempt or two, but once you are satisfied, you have your very own signature dish."
Ultimately, high-quality spice mixes, prepared pastes and marinades and the like are, at their best, helper ingredients. They will give you a head start (and save you some laborious measuring, mixing, soaking and fermenting). But the rest of the cooking, and all the creativity it can entail, remains up to you.