Can Americans, brought up on meat loaf and mashed potatoes, learn to love asafetida and onion seeds? Can they stand green chilies? Can they get used to chickpea flour and strange legumes?
Quentine Acharya says they can. "I don't find anything that Americans are reluctant to try out," she says, "and I don't tone down any recipes because I'm teaching Americans."
If the spirit is willing, the more mundane problems of where to get the ingredients for Indian dishes and what special equipment to buy will fall into place.
First, the equipment, which many cooks already have:
Anyone who intends to launch a serious inquiry into Indian cuisine will want some kind of machine to grind spices. Whole spices keep much better than ground. Compare fragrance, for instance, between cumin seeds bought already ground, and those that you grind yourself on the spot.
The electric mincer made by Mouli (sometimes called the Varco mincer) is perfect for spice grinding. It will do a creditable job on garlic, ginger and chilies, too, but only in relatively small amounts. A blender is really better for this. A coffee grinder can double as a spice grinder. Swirl rice around in it to clean it between times.
Something in which to deep-fry will also come in handy. The Indian implement is called a karhai, and as sold here looks like a straight-sided, stainless-steel wok. A wok is a good substitute, but a deep, heavy frying pan can be used as well. A cast-iron skillet or soapstone griddle is a necessity if you want to do griddle breads.
The techniques are not difficult to learn, either, though there are a few that are strange to American-style cooking.
Indian recipes usually call for browning spices in oil in order to more fully develop their flavor. A common procedure is to fry onions, then add spices and fry a few more minutes. Sometimes spices, especially cumin seeds, are "roasted" -- browned without fat in a heavy skillet -- then ground before being added to dishes.
Another staple technique used with many sauced dishes is to grind garlic and ginger together in a blender with a little water, then simmer together with other ingredients.
For supplies, try the following stores. Ask if they have paneer available, and on the weekends watch for deliveries of wonderful homemade samosas, prepared by an area woman. Most stores should also have ready-made Indian desserts, which are often based on milk and often extremely sweet. In Maryland:
Indian Super Market, 8107 Fenton St., Silver Spring, 589-8417.
Sadana International, 6857 New Hampshire Ave., Takoma Park, 270-2443.
Exotic India, 593 Hungerford Drive (Hechinger Plaza), Rockville, 340-9345. In Virginia:
Indian Spice and Gifts Store, 3901 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 522-0149.
India Bazaar in the Virginia Plaza shopping center at 395 and Duke St., Alexandria, 256-7999.
India Bazaar at 118 Maple Ave. West, Vienna, 281-2248.
Other Asian or Latin American groceries will carry some ingredients such as fresh chilies and coriander, and some of the above stores will mail order.