multi-course indian meal - different spices?
I cook a lot of (North) Indian food, usually following a recipe. It tastes pretty good (to me). What strikes me is that most seem to call for the same or very similar spicing: onions, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, green chilis, and often turmeric and garam masala. Other spices show up more sparingly.
In other words, I feel as if I'm cooking the same dish again and again - most often with an onion/cumin base - and that much as I enjoy my meals, they're essentially similar. This is a particular concern when I'm having people over and cooking a multi-course meal.
Does anyone have, I don't know what to call it, an "overview" of the Indian spicing system which elaborates how particular spices work in combination, and how to put together multiple dishes each using some subset of the total range of spices so as to minimize "overlap" of taste across the dinner menu?
The spices may generally be the same for basic dishes, but more complex masalas utilize a wider array of spices than the 45-minute dinner one puts together on a Wednesday. And even when I am generally using the same spices, there is enough difference between dishes that I don't find my meal tastes monotonous. When you use spices in varying proportion with different wet ingredients, different aromatics, different fats, you end up getting dishes that compliment each other without tasting identical. And then there are the small additions like a bit of toasted fenugreek seeds or leaves, a tadka that gets drizzled on at the end and pops a dish or the pickles you might have on the side to change up each bite.
Let's say you're making chicken kadai for dinner, utilizing the basic ingredients you described. On the side I might have a dal with whole cumin but also with bay leaf and lemon or juicy chunks of tomato so that it is a little tangy and bright and some fenugreek leaves for bitterness. For a vegetable I might have a potato and cauliflower mash with crunchy chunks of green pepper and drizzled with a slightly mustardy butter so that it tastes rich and is a counterpoint to the gingery chicken. You could also sprinkle it with chaat masala for another hint of flavor. And just so we have another texture, let's make cabbage stir fry seasoned mostly with garam masala and some mustard seed. That'll come together in 10 minutes while we wait for the dal to finish. Then of course there is a mild and creamy cucumber raita that gets its spice from raw garlic and a balance of smokiness and freshness from mint and cumin. We deviated from your basic spices with only a few pinches of cloves, mustard and cinnamon and maybe a bay leaf or chaat masala, but we still came up with a weeknight dinner with lots of textures and flavors working in complement and counterpoint.
When I'm planning a north Indian meal, one of the things I focus on is getting a range of different colored dishes. Example, a yellow daal, paired with a rich red/brown lamb, or maybe a chicken in a thick white sauce, a spinach-cilantro-fenugreek based green dish...etc. I balance that with a kachumber salad, and a raita of whatever I have handy. Doing it this way, I find, helps my meal look more interesting at the table and has the added advantage of getting a good range of flavours in the meal as typically he cooking method and spices are nicely varied and I'm not repeating the browned onion-tomato base.
It might help if you looked at your meal in a less meat focussed way. A good diversified cookbook (for example Madhur jaffrey or even Suvir Saran) will help you find dishes that have different and complementary ingredients rather than the same ginger-garlic- onion - cream base over and over. - I would suggest achieving diversity and balance by cooking different vegetable dishes, rice, dal, raita and other salads and potentially fish and seafood. as part of your meal, diversifying away from meat and cream-rich sauces and including dry cooked and deeo fried cold dishes with fresh vegetables to contrast with those in a hearty thick sauce..
You can think about a sequence of appetizers, for example fried pakoras, etc with dip, or a chaat or chickpea salad, a small serving of soup, followed by, say, a few shrimp stir fried with some spices,and herbs or coconut followed by a plate of rice or pilaf with your main meal items, a meat or chicken dish with the ginger-onions and the garam masala spices, a potato dish ( fried or cooked with tomatoes or spinach/methi/cilantro), s dish or two of dry fried vegetables (cabbage, eggplant, green beeans with coconut and cilantro, etc etc) , a raita and a dal
This is a problem I have with North Indian restaurants in the U.S.--it all tastes the same. My favorite Indian dishes are probably North Indian dishes, but the rest of India offers much greater diversity of flavors, in my opinion.
I recommend branching out into South Indian and Gujarati dishes. The ingredients you mention are common to all Indian cooking. But South Indian dishes rely heavily on several other ingredients, most notably mustard seed and curry leaves. If you cook from Raghavan Iyer's 660 Curries, you won't feel like you're cooking the same dish again and again.
Instead of multiple courses, I suggest serving one or two courses with raitas, pickles, chutneys, and salads (like kachumber).
Fadista, I have had kind of a similar line of self-questioning. Pondered it a lot actually.
Pretty much every Pakistani (shared with N. Indian) meat dish I cook is like this: onions fried till brown---though there are dishes that have no onions, next possibly whole garam masalas, then ginger garlic, green chiles, turmeric, cumin powder, coriander powder, red chile powder, tomato and/or yoghurt, and then powdered garam masala. That is prototypical. But then many dishes have their signature difference: a tablespoon of fengugreek at the end, ground white poppy seed as part of the gravy, dried mango powder, a dash of a finishing spice such as ground shahi zeera, ground cardamom, a squeeze of lime juice, or what have you. So there is difference.
The cooking technique is always similar in each recipe, but there are slight differences. In one recipe, I may stir dry spices (above mentioned) and aromatics into yoghurt, marinade meat in it, and braise the meat in the same marinade. In another dish, I might brown the onions first, strain them from the oil, then brown the meat, then add the yoghurt, and then grind and re-add the brown onions later. The dishes may have the exact same ingredients but the techniques and stage at which ingredients are added makes a huge difference in the end results. Each dish is identifiably different. One will not confuse a daily saalan ("curry") and a qorma.
For my personal cooking, I am more adventurous with vegetables. In the type of Pak-Indian cooking I have learned to cook in my daily life, the "tamaatar-pyaaz masala" or tomato onion gravy gets old. You can't have every vegetable dish with that tomato onion gravy that is ubiquitous in North Indian and Pakistani home cooking. You want variety. So I purposely hunt down unique recipes, and they are endless in supply. I try to vary veg recipes and avoid the standard tomato onion gravy. I do stuff like stuffed okra, stuffed bitter gourd, legumes with a simple tempering, I get away from onions and use asofetida, I use fresh whole green chiles, and curry leaves. I might use kukum or tamarind water or dried green mango cheeks as sour flavor agents in different daals and veg dishes. I save the standard mushy veg in tomato-onion gravy for dishes that taste best that way. So I end up cooking and eating a colorful variety. And Indian cuisine never fail in providing options for that.
In terms of serving a variety, it is just like with any cuisine. You wouldn't serve spinach stuffed chicken breast with creamed spinach as a side dish. Similarly, you would choose a small variety of proteins and veg dishes cooked in different ways, some dry gravy, some wet, some kabab, items that give contrast but compliment each other at the same time.
I like the diversity as well and many to achieve it, whether I do so consciously or not. Perhaps the easiest way is to use subsets of the spices in the vegetable dishes. Meat curries tend to use the whole collection of spices (as exemplified by 'curry powder'), along with a lot of cream and butter (it doing northern restaurant style). But I don't want to bury cauliflower in the same sort of rich sauce; steam frying it with a handful of whole spices is more interesting (e.g. fennel and mustard seed, and a dusting of turmeric for color). The rice can be cooked with whole spices like cloves and cardamom. And the classic cucumber raita is seasoned mostly with roast cumin.