Today I had the great privilege and honor of being invited to my friend Suneeta’s home for my very first lesson in preparing and cooking authentic, homemade Indian food. And what an incredible day we had.
Suneeta and I became acquainted through a mutual friend at the office via a sampling of one of her homemade Indian food dishes brought in for a potluck. Even before I took my first bite of the dish the aroma was so pleasant, so wonderful, that I knew the food was going to be at least as good as it smelled. And I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. Her dish was wonderful. The aromatic, complex flavors, the texture and visual appeal of her dish rivaled that of any Indian restaurant I’d been to.
After inhaling the sampling of food and raving incessantly about it, in jest I said that Suneeta could count me in amongst her students if she ever decided to offer cooking classes. Later that day my friend pitched the idea to Suneeta of giving some of us cooking lessons and she graciously agreed to have a few of us over so that we could learn to make homemade Indian food.
Wow – can you believe? What a wonderful thing for her to do for us.
How many times have you found yourself in an ethnic restaurant with food so fabulous you said to yourself that you’d gladly work in a place like that for free if only the owners would impart their generational knowledge, experience and techniques to you, and teach you the secrets of making truly great and authentic food? I’ve said that numerous times over the years and always wished I had an opportunity to learn to cook something other than the usual American and American-esq fare.
And now, Suneeta has kindly offered to bring us into her home and show a few of us how to prepare Indian food. So today, with cauliflower, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, green beans and cabbage in hand, I showed up to Suneeta’s and her family’s home and got straight to work.
Today’s menu includes sauteed cabbage, cauliflower korma, basmati rice, and learning how to prepare a few staple Indian spices.
Suneeta’s friend Sujatha joined us for today’s cooking lesson as well. And she too was very accommodating and helpful when we asked what I suspect were elementary questions about preparing today’s dishes.
First, I learned that there are some staple sauces and spices that Suneeta and Sujatha use in most of the dishes they make, as they had all of these on hand in great quantity. These are garlic-ginger paste, onion paste and green chili paste. They explained that these can be purchased in most any ethnic store but that they both prefer to make these from scratch as the flavor cannot be rivaled by buying the pre-made equivalents.
I learned too that tumeric is often added to recipes as a preservative and because many believe that is has numerous health benefits.
1 cup ginger, grated or finely chopped
1 cup garlic, grated or finely chopped
A pinch of tumeric
½ tsp salt
In a food processor grind all ingredients into a paste. The ginger-garlic paste should last for a week or more in the refrigerator.
Green Chili Paste
Indian green chilies
Salt to taste
Remove the stems from the chilies and in a food processor grind the peppers and salt into a medium to fine paste (a few small chunks are acceptable). The green chili paste should last for a week or more in the refrigerator.
Extra onions can be added to the korma, cauliflower or rice dishes and removed after they’re medium to dark brown and used to make the onion paste. This can be done at the same time the main dishes are being made.
1 cup onions, sautéed until medium to dark brown and cooled
1/8 cup almonds
1/8 cup cashews
1 tsp ground coconut
In a food processor combine the almonds and cashews and grind into a fine paste. Then add the coconut and grind some more, then the cooled sautéed onions and grind until all the ingredients are combined.
With the sauces made we were ready to begin cooking.
Our first dish was sautéed cabbage. Up until today I would have told anyone that I don’t like cabbage. In fact, I’d have said that I hate it.
My disdain for this vegetable could stem from the roommate I used to have who used to cook cabbage all too often. On cabbage days, the overwhelming stench assaulted my olfactory receptors and permeated the entire living area well into the next day. I was tempted one day to ask how he prepared his signature dish but I was afraid the offer to try some might have followed my query, so I nixed that idea almost as soon as I thought of it.
Or it could be from the many times I felt pressured to eat cole slaw made with a ratio of 15 parts mayonnaise to 1 part cabbage, sitting in a puddle of liquid of unknown origin. To this day cole slaw remains wholly unappetizing to me. Over the years I’ve tasted it from time to time hoping maybe it would seem better to me but that hasn’t happened yet.
It’s quite possible too that the problems started well before adulthood, when I was forced as a helpless babe to eat boiled cabbage with no discernible spices or flavoring of any kind. Regardless, I was certain that I hated cabbage and that was the end of that.
Until that is, Suneeta and Sujatha showed us how they prepare it.
1 cup olive oil
1 medium russet potato, chopped into medium size chunks
1 head cabbage with the outer leaves removed, finely chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 cup peas
1 tsp. cumin seeds
3 Tbls. (or to taste) green chili paste
½ tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. salt
On medium high, heat the oil and then add onions and cook until they are medium to dark brown. Add the green chili paste and stir, cooking for about 5 minutes. Add the cabbage and potatoes and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring to mix well.
Add the turmeric and salt, mix well, cover and cook until the potatoes are almost done, about 20 minutes. Then add the peas, stir and cook until done.
I knew as we were cooking this that it was going to be quite good, even with my lingering cruciferous vegetable trepidation. It wasn’t until today that I realized that cabbage could actually taste good! This dish had a nice, mild flavor and the green chili paste gave it a pleasant but not an overwhelming spicy bite. The texture of the potatoes contrasted well with the cabbage, and I found that it was a light but very satisfying meal. I will definitely be making this dish again.
Up next was the cauliflower dish. Korma roughly translates to stew, and most kormas I’ve had tended to be on the thicker side, which I prefer.
1 cup olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1/8-1/4 cup onion paste
2 Tbls. ginger garlic paste
2 cups green beans, cut into 1” lengths
1 small potato, cubed
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. chili powder
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 head cauliflower, chopped
2 tsp. garam masala
2 tsp. coriander powder
On medium high, heat the oil and then add onions and cook until they are medium to dark brown. Add onion paste and ginger-garlic paste to sautéed onions and stir well and cook for about 5 minutes. Add green beans, potatoes, turmeric, salt, chili powder and stir. Add tomatoes (and more water if necessary) and stir.
Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add the cauliflower and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the garam masala, coriander powder, salt, and stir. Cook until the potatoes are done.
1 cup olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 tsp. ginger-garlic paste
1 cup peas
1 cup chopped carrots
6 cups basmati rice
2 tsp. Biryani Masala
Water for rice (1 cup water for each 1.5 cups rice)
On medium high, heat the oil and then add onions and cook until they are medium to dark brown. Add the Biryani masala and the ginger-garlic paste, stir and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the peas and carrots and stir until blended. Add the rice and water to a rice cooker, then and add the sautéed mixture and stir to combine all the ingredients. Cook the rice until done.
The cauliflower korma with its spicy sauce went especially well with the Basmati rice. Suneeta and Sujatha explained to me that raita is added on top of the rice just before the meal is done. The reason is that the raita helps cools the palette after the spicy korma and cabbage dishes. Besides the functionality of the raita, it’s just really, really good on rice.
1 onion, chopped
1/8 cup carrots, chopped
2 cups yogurt
1/8 cup cucumbers (optional)
Mix all the ingredients well and serve on top of the basmati rice, towards the end of the meal.
I had a delightful afternoon with my new friends cooking, talking, learning, asking questions, snapping photos, and most especially eating! It’s a rare thing these days to be invited into someone’s home and feel so comfortable, to be around people who have the most genuine and gentlest of souls, with smiles that exude happiness, love and peace, and spend time together doing the simplest of things – cooking.
Sujatha and Suneeta, I thank you for a wonderful afternoon.