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What's Wrong With My Indian Food?

I have been eating Indian food for over 25 years, both home cooked and in restaurants. I started cooking it consistently about 4 months ago. I like to make various dals and other beans like kala chana and rajma. I made black eyes peas and it looked great but didn't taste that good. I am getting nice gravies but something is really missing from the actual taste. It is edible but it doesn't have that 'wow' flavor that I find in restaurants and friend's homes. Restaurants use a lot of oil which I use a smaller amount of, but there has to be something else that my food is missing. I wasn't using enough salt before but have corrected that. I just don't know what's missing from my food. I can actually make good stuffed parathas and my biryani is good but my veggie dishes are completely lackluster in flavor. I don't grind my spices daily but have Indian markets close by so they aren't 6 mos old.
Any advice or secrets to making great homemade Indian food would be more than appreciated!

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  1. I use chopped onion and grated fresh ginger as a base. I think it is important to grind one's own spices so that one can toast the whole spices first before grinding. Add the spices to the sweated onion/ginger mixture and give it a good high heat saute without burning them. Also I don't mind cooking the vegetables or lentils in the spiced onion longer to allow the flavors to blend together. Before serving, I stir in some garam masala and fresh chopped herb such as cilantro or mint. Don't skimp on the spices. Restaurants uses a ton of it. Reheating is also good for flavor.

    1. Not sure if you are already using it, but a pinch of asafoetida (hing) made a world of difference with my dals. It stinks, so be sure to keep it tightly capped and perhaps in a plastic bag.

      1. I'm no Indian food expert, but I cook enough to know that the amount -- and kind -- of fat you use can very assuredly make the difference between 'edible' and 'wow.' Also, try using ghee rather than oil.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Tatania

          Oh, that ghee suggestion is a good one!

        2. post a recipe you are using that produces something you are not "wowed" with.

          1. When we were doing the Indian books for COTM, one of the authors [does someone else remember who?] included the following comment [total paraphrase}:

            When making Indian food cook with the full amount of oil or ghee since building the flavors is dependent on the oil spreading the flavors properly. For those who wish to reduce the amount of oil they eat, defat before serving.

            After reading this, that is what I started to do. If the recipe said 5 tbl of oil, that is what I used, but I did remove visible oil before serving and the flavors of each dish became fuller and deeper. Perhaps this would help?

            1. The most common problem I see with North Indian cooking is people not browning their onions/garlic/ginger properly and not allowing their masala pastes to completely dry up and let the oil come to the top. If the ingredients are not properly "bhunofied", you will never achieve the right taste. For rajma and black eyed peas, I presume you cook the legumes separately, and make a tomato-onion based masala?

              You should start with onions, chopped is fine, and start on high heat, then lower the heat and let the moisture cook out of them until they are crispy and golden and browning. If you have any whole garam masalas in your recipe, they can be in with the onions. Add in your ginger/garlic and allow them to turn golden towards the last few minutes of the onions. Then add in your tomatoes. Turn up the heat and really stir them and allow the water to dry up leaving you with a nice thick paste. If you have cooked the onions long enough, they will completely break down now in your tomato paste. If you have not cooked them long enough, you will still see them and you have done the dish improperly. Add in your ground masalas once you see the oil starting to come to the top of the masala paste and cook for a few minutes more. It should look nice and thick and now be sticking to the pan a bit. Be sure you have salted both the legumes and the masala paste. When you have a good paste, stir it into the legumes and cook for like 20 mins more. I sometimes pour off the oil from the masala paste because it takes a good amount of oil to do the process right and I don't want that oil in my legumes. For the final seasoning, I add a pinch more of garam masala and now add in a tbs of ghee or butter for perfume. I never cook the ingredients in ghee, a light flavorless oil will do.

              Rajma and black eyed peas have a similar recipe, but for black eyed peas I add in a dash of lime juice at the end of cooking. I also garnish with chopped raw onions, chopped green chiles, and cilantro. Match-stick ginger shards are also nice.

              12 Replies
                1. re: cannoli28

                  Luckyfatima, I am definitely going to try the browning of the onions. I have heard that before and should have followed that advice the first time.

                2. re: luckyfatima

                  Fatima Auntie, can the way you cut your onions also affect the final flavor? I don't cook vegetarian too often, but when I lived at home, I recall my father showing me the proper way to cut, dice, chop or grate onions depending on the dish to really extract the flavor and get a rich gravy with the right amount of oniony savoriness.

                  1. re: JungMann

                    I'm no Aunt Fatima, but I do know that the more finely you dice ingredients such as garlic and onions, the more surface area you create, and consequently, the stronger the flavor.

                    1. re: Perilagu Khan

                      Haha yes but you are Khan Saheb. Yes that might be it.

                    2. re: JungMann

                      Jee Jungmann beta, I have heard this, too but I am not sure on it specifically. I can tell you only that I do the onions differently for different dishes: Usually for rice dishes it is long onions sliced. I chop onions small in legume dishes and regular qeema, and also many daily veg. mostly so they break down easiest. I never grate onions, usually just do puree in the food processor. They still bhunofy that way...it is good for dopyaaza. I also fry the long sliced onions till crisp and crush those for certain dishes.

                    3. re: luckyfatima

                      I had a feeling this kind of answer would come up, and I'm so glad to have the process explained so well! Luckyfatima, you are very kind to explain your process so thoroughly.

                      For anyone who is used to a more European treatment of onions and garlic (i.e., soften but don't brown as you begin your recipe), cooking them to a properly caramelized state can be foreign and even a little bit scary. I know that there are some Western recipes in which browned alliums are desirable, such as when they are roasted with a piece of meat or used in French Onion Soup. But usually, this is not the case, and so it requires a little courage to really cook the heck out of 'em for proper tasting Indian food.

                      1. re: luckyfatima

                        what do you mean by "whole garam masalas in your recipe"? are you saying the individual spices you would grind down - to use them whole first with the onions? and then later adding the toasted/ground spices that make garam masala? or am i just not getting the concept of garam masala (i made some this weekend - per the instructions, i toasted a variety or spices, then ground them all together)..... ?

                        1. re: mariacarmen

                          garam masalas are the warming spices (according to ayurvedic principles, they add warmth or heat to the body) like cinnamon, cardamon, black cardamon, bay leaf, cloves, black pepper corns, etc. They are 'garam masala' whether or not they are ground or whole. When they are ground together to a powder after dry roasting, they are also garam masala, but powdered. For many recipes, one may heat oil and add in cumin seeds, a whole bay leaf, a black cardamon, and a piece of a stick of cinnamon and then add in the onions, and let the whole garam masalas toast off with the onions. In the same recipe, you may end up adding a bit of powdered garam masala as well.

                          1. re: mariacarmen

                            Like lucky fatima said "garam masala" refers to the warming spices. They are mainly used 2 ways (1) whole, they are fried in the oil at the beginning of the dish, releasing their flavor into the oil and perfuming the dish all through the cooking process (2) the toasted and ground garam masala is usually sprinkled over the dish after cooking is completed as a grarnish or additional flavor enhancement. Usually the ground garam masala is not cooked into the dish.

                            1. re: jen kalb

                              ok. I was confused because i understood "masala" to mean mixture - so i thought it meant that they had to be already blended together (i.e., ground) to be called a masala.

                              The recipe I used called for the garam masala spices to be dry toasted and then ground together, and then cooked in oil with the onions (so, not sprinkled over the dish after the fact), then adding diced canned tomatoes and coconut milk, and the whole thing simmered for about half hour. Australian author - Jane Lawson - maybe a different take?

                              Thanks for the info!

                              1. re: mariacarmen

                                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6468...

                                See this thread for further info, but in a nutshell, masala means seasonings and spices. Garam masala refers to a particular genre of 'warm' spices.

                        2. a lot of indian dishes, esp dal, raita and veg have a last minute addition of spices, ginger slivers, green chiles etc fried in oil or ghee and added as a seasoning garnish. Are you doing that?

                          what is your recipe source?

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: jen kalb

                            The answer is Fat and Salt-the two things that have me off Indian food.

                              1. re: Sam Salmon

                                Are there any cuisines that don't rely heavily on fat and salt to generate flavor? Perhaps so, but they're probably not cuisines that are at the top of my list.