CURRY is to Indian food what chop suey is to Chinese, according to Madhur Jaffrey, the author of several cookbooks on Indian cuisine--a "vague, inaccurate" term that tends to lump the varied foods of a huge country under one "dubious catch-all title."
Curry powder is a predictable blend of several spices commonly available in supermarkets and is designed to help the American cook reproduce the exotic flavors of Indian cuisine. But Indian food in fact relies on a variety of spices and herbs used in different quantities, and their combinations make one dish very different from another.
Even if Indian cooks had to rely on only one spice, they might change its personality from dish to dish. Cumin, for example, can be ground, or roasted and ground, or fried whole in hot oil. In each case, the resulting dish would have its own distinctive flavor. It's easy to see, then, that the essence of Indian cusine cannot be blended and ground and packed into cans.
All very well and good, but black mustard seeds, asafetida, amchoor and fenugreek are not easy to find in the average supermarket. Even if they were, suburban kitchens are more likely to have Cuisinarts than spice grinders. And the American penchant for foreign flavors predetermines the popularity of Indian food.
Fortunately, there's a way to preserve the integrity of Indian food without reserving the weekend for shopping forays and hours alone with the mortar and pestle. Authentic Indian food is possible with a quick trip through the express lane of the supermarket, provided you already have salt, pepper and oil on the kitchen shelf. This recipe is inspired by Madhur Jaffrey.
EXPRESS LANE LIST: garlic, chicken, onions, yellow squash, cumin (whole seeds if possible), lemon juice, hot red pepper, rice. INDIAN SQUASH (4 servings) 2 medium onions 3 medium yellow squash 3 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds (or 1 teaspoon cumin powder) Salt to taste 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice Dash cayenne pepper
Peel onions and cut into thin slices. Slice the squash about 1/4 inch thick. Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add cumin. Whole seeds should turn several shades darker in just a few seconds. (If using cumin powder, remove the skillet from the fire before sprinkling powder into oil and add onions immediately.) When the seeds darken, add onions, and lower heat. Stirring occasionally, cook about 10 minutes. Add the squash and a little salt. Cover tightly and steam 10 to 15 minutes. Remove cover, stir in pepper, lemon juice and cayenne. Stir and heat through about a minute. Serve with rice and chicken baked with garlic butter. GARLIC CHICKEN (4 servings) 4 chicken breast halves (or sufficient substitute to serve 4) 4 to 6 tablespoons butter 2 cloves garlic Salt and pepper to taste
While broiler is preheating (set dial at 400 degrees), melt butter over low heat. Mash and then mince garlic. Add to melted butter. Place chicken, skin side down, on oiled rack in shallow baking pan. Brush generously with butter and season with salt (if desired) and freshly ground black pepper. Place 5 inches from broiling element and cook 10 minutes, basting occasionally with butter. Turn chicken, brush with butter and broil another 10 minutes, basting occasionally. Serve drippings over hot, boiled rice.