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why is my indian food bland?

So I've made two Indian dishes from CI -- Indian curry and Tikka Masala -- and they were both just okay. No big flavors, just so so.
But I think it's me, not CI, because I've had at least one of these dishes at a friend's house, and they were amazing. He did say that he increased the spices, so when I made the indian curry I used double the spices. Totally uninteresting. Not much flavor at all.

Any ideas what I might be doing wrong? I followed the recipe exactly, aside from doubling the spices.

Do spices like cumin and tumeric and cardamom lose their flavor? They should be good spices, because I ordered them from penzeys. But they are a little old...

I'm feeling discouraged about my cooking skills, so I'd appreciate your thoughts!

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  1. The perennial question when people ask about bland food - how is the salt level?

    Besides those 3 what spices did you use? How about black pepper, garlic, ginger, onions, hot pepper? It will be hard to diagnose the problem without knowing more about the recipes. Also what are you basing your expectations on? Restaurant food?

    Turmeric does not have a strong flavor, it contributes more color than flavor. If used too much it may have a medicinal quality that you won't like.

    While cumin seeds keep the flavor better than ground, I have some ground that is several years old, and have no problems getting cumin flavor when I want it.

    Again cardamom keeps better than ground. But even if it is old, I doubt if that is your problem.

    6 Replies
    1. re: paulj

      Well, it definitely wasn't the salt. I bumped that up because I thought it might help the flavor, so it was almost salty (not too salty, but salty).
      The recipe called for cilantro, jalepeno, garlic, fresh ginger, cumin, tumeric, and coriander. (I get coriander and cardamom mixed up but I think it was coriander). I added some garam masala as well, just for more flavor. No black or red pepper. The last four were pretty old (the ginger wasn't soft or moldy but it had been in the fridge for awhile) so I doubled all of them.
      It said to cook onions in oil, then to puree the ginger and garlic and add them with ground spices and yogurt and meat to the oil, cook it until the water evaporated and the oil separated from the spices, add water cilantro and jalepeno and simmer...
      It said to cook the spice/garlic/yogurt mixture on med-high for about 7 minutes, but I ended up cooking it for like 20 minutes because that's how long it took for all the water to evaporate.
      The cilantro and jalepeno added some flavor, but there just was no curry flavor at all.

      1. re: overthinkit

        I hope by 'curry flavor' that you don't mean the mapley quality of fenugreek, which is prominent in some curry mixes.

        Your garam masala probably has cumin, cinnamon, ground ginger, etc. That is a lot of the 'curry' flavors, but without the turmeric color. Have you cooked with just that mix? I'm happy to make keema (dry ground meat mixture) with little more than garam masala as the seasoning.

        The jalapeno probably takes care of heat factor. That, plus the cilantro, garlic, ginger, and onions are important part of the overall 'curry' flavor.

        There may be a problem with expectations. The other day I made some quick cooked cabbage that had plenty of 'Indian' character. Spices were whole black mustard (half of which popped out of the pan during initial toasting), fennel seeds, turmeric (just enough to color), cumin (yes the old stuff), with a pinch of garam masala at the end.

        1. re: paulj

          well, I don't know. I've never even heard of fenugreek. I definitely wasn't shooting for the flavor from those "golden curry" mixes. I just wanted there to be heat and flavor.

          But you may be right about the expectations. I probably should have a clearer idea of what I'm shooting for before I complain. I do like the garam masala, so maybe I should find a recipe that just uses that.

          Thanks for the suggestions!

          1. re: overthinkit

            The only hot ingredients in your recipe are the jalapeno and ginger.

        2. re: overthinkit

          I would second cooking the onion-garlic-ginger base with the spices for a longer time, until it comes together and you can smell it.
          I didn't notice any chili powder listed. Isn't that usually the main source of heat? and it adds a lot of red color

        3. re: paulj

          I really like iIshmael Merchants Passionate Meals. No, it's not the most authentic cookbook but I like ithe variety of spice mixtures and that most recipes have no more than 5 ingredients. It makes Indian food very approachable and is a good starter cookbook.

        4. Old spices are a no-no, especially if you're seeking heat and vibrancy. Find an Indian grocer and buy key spices in bags. Cheaper that way. Around here, there's also a good spice merchant at the farmer's market, if you want to get smaller quantities. Do not buy from supermarkets except in a pinch.

          CI recipes, too, are not very good for Indian dishes, in my experience. But if you liked your friend's version with amped up spices, it seems that freshness is the likely culprit.

          The Penzey's recipes that accompany their Indian spices are, by the way, even worse--much so. I like Penzey's a lot, but don't trust their Indian recipes.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Bada Bing

            Yeah, I'm not a big fan of penzey's indian recipes. I tried their butter chicken and it wasn't great.
            Do you think that penzey's is a good place to buy indian spices, or would you look for an indian food store instead?
            And do you have a good source of indian recipes that you would recommend?
            Thanks!

            1. re: overthinkit

              I think that Penzey's spices are very good, because fresh and reliable. But like CI, their focus is mainstream American when it comes to recipes.

              I can't tell where you live, or what level of commitment you have to further Indian cooking. The best way to cook Indian for someone who would like to make a number of dishes over the next half year would be to get some solid recipes (try out any Madhur Jaffrey book from the library, or Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking), and go to an Indian grocery and buy mainly whole spices where possible (cumin, coriander, cardamon pods, mustard seeds, etc.) and then some of those that are typically pre-ground (turmeric, red chili pepper, etc.). If you have a spice shop nearby, that's a good option, too. You'll probably find that you need cumin and coriander seed in the largest quantities. That's what I always run out of first.

              The main thing to avoid is buying expensive little bottles of spices at a supermarket where the turnover is likely to be slow. Penzey's doesn't suffer from low turnover. But seriously, you can pay $4 for a bottle of whole cumin seeds at a supermarket but then go pay $2 for four times as much cumin in a bag at an Indian (or Latin) specialty market. And if any food is spice-intensive, it's Indian food. I bet you could walk out of an Indian grocer with $15 of spices that would set you back $75 or more for equivalent quantities at a supermarket.

              If you dedicate a coffee grinder as a spice grinder (you won't want coffee ground from that thing afterwards), you can make vibrant indian food for quite some time. (Whole spices keep much longer than ground.)

              I have used the spice blends from Penzey's and also the various "Curry Powder" bottles in supermarkets as convenience items. If you look at the ingredients, they are almost always just different combinations of the same half-dozen or so spices. The "hot curry" just has some more chili powder, and the "Vindaloo" mix just swaps the relative proportions of cumin, coriander and chili powder, etc.

              I guess I'm advanced enough now that I just don't see the point in buying a bunch of pre-blended spices. But I do understand that people just beginning can find them helpful in keeping things from seeming too complicated.

              1. re: Bada Bing

                this is very helpful, Bada Bing. Thanks!

          2. I wouldn't try to cook ethnic food from Cooks Illustrated. Is this recipe (in the video) the one you followed? http://www.americastestkitchen.com/re...
            It is a "weekday cooking" type of recipe that has taken too many unacceptable shortcuts, IMO. (Use of preground spices, spices aren't cooked off long enough in oil, chicken not marinated, etc etc.)

            4 Replies
            1. re: fmed

              I can't see the recipe (I have a subscription to CI, but not test kitchen, so I can't see test kitchen content, which drives me crazy) but it's likely.
              If it's a bad recipe, that makes me feel better.
              Do you have any advice about where to find better recipes without the shortcuts? I'd appreciate it if you do.
              Thanks!

              1. re: overthinkit

                Get a cookbook by respected Indian authors like Madhur Jaffrey. Look for detailed technical chapters or subsections that describe some common techniques that Indian cooks always use and that publications like CI always gloss over.

              2. re: fmed

                I generally dislike CI for Indian food or anything other than meat and potatoes type food. The article in the NYTimes about Kimball pointed out how many meatloaf recipes they've done and said he has only grudgingly let them do Chinese and Indian dishes. I will never forget the episode of America's Test Kitchen where he raved on about how great a giant tub of Tone's curry from Sam's Club is, advising viewers to go out and buy one because it would last forever. He really said this. I just really have trouble believing Vermont taste buds are the authority on this type of food. They consistently endorse what they are comfortable with, including modeling their brownies after box mixes.

                1. re: willownt

                  That about the curry powder lasting forever is an interesting bit. It only adds to the view I already share with you: CI has many good things about it, but it seldom does great with "ethnic" and spicy-hot cuisines. First there's some timidness about spice levels, but also they tend to exclude harder-to-find ingredients and seek substitutes (a reasonable concession perhaps, to their market demographics, but one pays a price in flavors).

              3. three things that might help with the flavor:

                1) use whole spices and grind them yourself
                2) use fresher spices
                3) toast your spices in a dry pan prior to using/grinding! makes a big difference!

                8 Replies
                1. re: mattstolz

                  To add to this great list:
                  4) cook off your spices until the oil separates. (otherwise the dish will have a raw spice flavour)
                  5) don't take shortcuts (CI does this to make their recipes more accessible to the "everyday" cook)

                  1. re: fmed

                    So, this is going to sound stupid, but... how will I know the oil has separated? I put some oil and some tumeric and some cumin in a little cast iron pan and cooked it, just to see, but I never saw the "separating" everyone talks about. Eventually the spices just burned and started smoking.

                    1. re: overthinkit

                      The spice, onion/garlic/ginger etc and oil mixture transforms from a wet paste to a glossy paste with a pool of orange-red oil around it.

                      1. re: fmed

                        hmm... that definitely didn't happen. Thanks.

                  2. re: mattstolz

                    In addition to toasting the spices, once they're ground, fry them.

                    1. re: mattstolz

                      Toasting is widely believed to be, without qualification, a good thing. That's wrong. Toasting certainly alters the flavour of the spices, by creating new flavour compounds, but it also results in the loss of the most fragrant, volatile oils.

                      For the majority of spices that are used in Indian curries that will be served with meats, toasting the spices will enhance them, but it shouldn't be the rule for all spices.

                      1. re: mugen

                        I agree, and see little point to toasting spices that will be fried in oil. toasting is good to prepare the whole spices for grinding in garam masala or whole cumin, where the spice will be sprinkled on finished dishes, or for say, sambal masala. I very rarely toast my indian spices.. they will get the heating they need in the frying process

                        OP needs to be careful about frying the spices in oil - if there is not a wet spice paste involved, just oil in the pan, they will scorch. better to keep stirring, turn the heat down or add a little water if things are getting too hot,

                        Agreeing with all the posters above - I would never, ever rely on CI recipes for any ethnic dishes. Probably be better with any random online recipe from an indian source site than this. I agree that Madhur Jaffrey is good. Start with her simplest recipes preferably from Invitation to Indian Cooking.

                        1. re: jen kalb

                          I'm more experienced with Sri Lankan curries than Indian - I go by what my Sri Lankan mother in law taught me.

                          Curry leaves, rampe (aka pandan), sliced onions, chillies are added to hot oil to temper first. After a minute-ish, the spices are added (for some dishes, for some spices - it depends), then the other ingredients are added another, say, half a minute after that. This way, the spices really don't have time to scorch, but their flavour really does have a chance to develop nicely.

                    2. Besides following the excellent suggestions given here for getting the best out of your spices, try the recipes in Camellia Panjabi's cook books, especially "50 Great Curries of India." Every recipe in there is wonderful, but the lamb vindaloo and butter chicken recipes are to die for.

                      No knock on CI. I use them for nearly everything else, and right now have a pork loin roasting per their instructions. It, too, will be to die for. One of life's great pleasures is food. Presumably this is a family site, so no mention of the other.

                      15 Replies
                      1. re: margaretx

                        Thanks! I'll look at her recipes and see if there are differences. That should help me figure out if it's me or CI.

                        1. re: overthinkit

                          I don't know abou the recipes that you are using, but I can vouch for the general freshness and quality of Penzey's Indian spices. If I don't have time to get to the indian store (now that it's not easily accessible), I order from Penzey's online and have been very pleased with the quality. Their Rogan Josh curry powder blend is the secret to my lamb curry.

                          As a second generation Indian American who's still trying to perfect my mom's recipes, I would guess that you aren't frying the onions long enough. I can follow her recipes to a T, with even fresher spices than are in her cabinets and hers tastes better than mind -- and I can tell you for sure, that she's more patient in browning onions than I am. That's the key. and proper salting.

                        2. re: margaretx

                          Vindaloo and butter chicken are both English inventions - while butter chicken, by reverse integration, now appears on menus in urban India, vindaloo doesn't exist in India - doesn't say much for the authenticity of her recipes.

                          1. re: mugen

                            I made a vindaloo recipe from Julie Sanhi's Classic Indian Cooking book. As I recall, she said it was a Goan speciality (a bit north of Bombay/Mumbai). I recall it used heated mustard oil, and both the flavor and the "heat" profile were very different from what most Americans like myself encounter as vindaloo. Previously, I'd always just thought of vindaloo as the most reliably "hot" curry preparation in an Indian restaurant.

                            1. re: Bada Bing

                              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vindaloo
                              this Wiki article is weak on citations, but gives some idea of its origins and variations. Goa is some ways south of Mumbai, and was for 4 centuries a Portuguese territory. The name is believed to come from "Carne de Vinha d' Alhos, meat with wine and garlic. But the Goan version uses vinegar, and chillies. However, the article claims that often in Western restaurants it is just a hotter version of their regular 'curry'.

                              Since the Portuguese are reputed to have introduced chillies to India, I would think that vindaloo has as deep Indian roots as any other dish that uses chillies.

                              1. re: paulj

                                Yeah, wikipedia is interesting here. Thanks! The lack of vinegar and the mustard oil is what I notice now when I recall American vindaloo, which is just hotter but not so different otherwise from the other curries..

                                Geographically, I was mixing Goa in my mind with Gujarat, both of which I think about in relation to Bombay/Mumbai.

                                1. re: Bada Bing

                                  I got the impression, from some place, that the use of mustard oil is more common in eastern India (West Bengal, etc). I've never bought it.

                            2. re: mugen

                              not sure about Vindaloo, but Butter Chicken was not invented in the UK.
                              That dish was born in the kitchens Moti Mahal back in the 1940's.

                              1. re: meatnveg

                                You're right. Here is what Camellia Panjabi, whose book was recommended by margaretx, has to say about butter chicken:

                                "Butter chicken originated in the 1950s at the Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi where they made the sauce by adding butter and tomato to the leftover chicken juices in the marinade trays from which they used to sell hundreds of portions of tandoori chicken every day."

                                I have Panjabi's book and second its recommendation (though perhaps not as a first Indian cookbook for someone). Apart from the wonderful recipes, it is worth having just for its exceptionally informative introductory section, which delves into food in the various regions of India, how curries are constructed, the ingredients that go into them, how spices are combined, and more. The gorgeous photographs of the dishes, among the best I've seen in any cookbook, are an added enticement.

                              2. re: mugen

                                Vindaloo is not a English invention and has nothing to do with the British Rule in India.
                                It is Pure Goa, South Indian Spices with Pork and Vinegar from the Portuguese Colonization.

                                1. re: mugen

                                  My mistake!

                                  I've travelled and eaten widely in northern India, and can't recall ever having seen vindaloo on menus. I can't even remember having seen it on menus at places that specialised in south Indian/Goan. A quick flick through some zomato.com menus seems to confirm my memory - odd - perhaps because northerners don't tend to eat pork ... ?

                                  1. re: mugen

                                    Not really there have been very few Christians in the North and neither Muslims or Hindus eat pork

                                    1. re: chefj

                                      I know many non-veg Hindus who eat pork. Pork is not forbidden in Hinduism, just beef.

                                  2. re: mugen

                                    Butter chicken is not an English invention. I think you are thinking of Chicken Tikka Masala.