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why is my indian food bland?

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overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 05:35 PM

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. paulj RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 05:48 PM

    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
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      overthinkit RE: paulj Feb 4, 2012 06:01 PM

      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
        paulj RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 06:26 PM

        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
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          overthinkit RE: paulj Feb 4, 2012 06:34 PM

          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
            paulj RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 06:56 PM

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

        2. re: overthinkit
          v
          villanelle74 RE: overthinkit Feb 5, 2012 12:13 PM

          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
          k
          Kalivs RE: paulj Jan 10, 2013 06:09 AM

          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. Bada Bing RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 05:49 PM

          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
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            overthinkit RE: Bada Bing Feb 4, 2012 06:04 PM

            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
              Bada Bing RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 07:21 PM

              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
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                overthinkit RE: Bada Bing Feb 5, 2012 04:18 AM

                this is very helpful, Bada Bing. Thanks!

          2. fmed RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 06:18 PM

            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
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              overthinkit RE: fmed Feb 4, 2012 06:23 PM

              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
                fmed RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 07:59 PM

                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
                w
                willownt RE: fmed Jan 10, 2013 12:03 PM

                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
                  Bada Bing RE: willownt Jan 10, 2013 02:29 PM

                  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. mattstolz RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 06:27 PM

                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
                  fmed RE: mattstolz Feb 4, 2012 06:42 PM

                  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
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                    overthinkit RE: fmed Feb 4, 2012 07:11 PM

                    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
                      fmed RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 07:58 PM

                      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
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                        overthinkit RE: fmed Feb 5, 2012 04:19 AM

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

                  2. re: mattstolz
                    j
                    jvanderh RE: mattstolz Feb 4, 2012 06:48 PM

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

                    1. re: mattstolz
                      m
                      mugen RE: mattstolz Jan 10, 2013 03:04 PM

                      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
                        jen kalb RE: mugen Jan 12, 2013 09:17 PM

                        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
                          LMAshton RE: jen kalb Jan 14, 2013 01:01 AM

                          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. m
                      margaretx RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 06:52 PM

                      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
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                        overthinkit RE: margaretx Feb 4, 2012 07:04 PM

                        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
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                          MAH RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 07:49 PM

                          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
                          m
                          mugen RE: margaretx Jan 10, 2013 03:05 PM

                          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
                            Bada Bing RE: mugen Jan 12, 2013 12:50 PM

                            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
                              paulj RE: Bada Bing Jan 12, 2013 01:16 PM

                              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
                                Bada Bing RE: paulj Jan 12, 2013 01:39 PM

                                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
                                  paulj RE: Bada Bing Jan 12, 2013 01:42 PM

                                  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
                              meatnveg RE: mugen Jan 12, 2013 01:59 PM

                              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
                                c
                                cheesemaestro RE: meatnveg Jan 13, 2013 10:55 AM

                                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
                                chefj RE: mugen Jan 12, 2013 02:05 PM

                                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
                                  m
                                  mugen RE: mugen Jan 13, 2013 12:33 AM

                                  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
                                    chefj RE: mugen Jan 13, 2013 09:42 AM

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

                                    1. re: chefj
                                      boogiebaby RE: chefj Jan 13, 2013 11:42 AM

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

                                      1. re: boogiebaby
                                        chefj RE: boogiebaby Jan 13, 2013 02:59 PM

                                        That is correct my mistake.

                                  2. re: mugen
                                    boogiebaby RE: mugen Jan 13, 2013 11:43 AM

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

                                2. r
                                  Rick RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 08:48 PM

                                  I recommend the book 660 curries by Raghavan Iyer. I've literally never made a bad dish from that book. Gets great reviews too. I'd be your problem has to do more with the recipe than your cooking skills or you ingredients. I also use Penzey's spices (lucky enough to have a local store) and I doubt that would be your problem.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Rick
                                    a
                                    AlkieGourmand RE: Rick Mar 4, 2012 06:21 PM

                                    Same here. I've made dozens of recipes from 660 Curries spanning a huge range of ingredients and techniques. Almost all of them have come out good, and many have come out great. My only failures have been with parathas.

                                    If you follow the recipes in this book (which is not hard at all), your Indian food will not be bland.

                                  2. o
                                    OnkleWillie RE: overthinkit Feb 4, 2012 09:22 PM

                                    As MAH has mentioned, well browned onions are the key many Indian dishes. Skimp on the browning and the dish won’t taste right no matter how many spices you dump in.

                                    Indian “browning” means just that, real brown; like Buster Brown Shoe brown. I find that it takes me about 30 – 35 minutes to achieve the proper color without risking burning the mixture.

                                    The following old blog by Barbara from Tigers and Strawberries is the best set of instructions I have ever come across: http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com/...

                                    This web site also has a number of good Indian recipes.

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: OnkleWillie
                                      Bada Bing RE: OnkleWillie Feb 5, 2012 04:16 AM

                                      I very much agree with you and MAH about the onion browning.

                                      1. re: OnkleWillie
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                                        overthinkit RE: OnkleWillie Feb 5, 2012 04:20 AM

                                        hmm... didn't do that either. CI didn't say anything about onion browning. Looks like I have some books to buy.
                                        Thanks for all the help, guys!!

                                        1. re: overthinkit
                                          p
                                          pine time RE: overthinkit Feb 5, 2012 08:18 AM

                                          Yup on browning the spices quite dark and roasting them (cast iron pan is best) beforehand. Also, for Indian food/spices, I buy whole spices in small amounts, then grind and roast them just before cooking. Whirl them in a dedicated coffee grinder for roasting. Plus, I've found most Americanized recipes quite tame in their spice levels. For recipes calling for whole spices, roast them beforehand, too, and tie in a cheesecloth bag for extraction before eating (or risk expensive dental work). I'll often add a good 3-4" of tubed tomato paste to the browned/oil-separated spice-onion mixture. Anytime cardamom is called for in Indian recipes, I use a mix of white (sometimes called green) and black cardamom. With onions: I add in multi-leveled ways--brown the ones for garnishing, remove and then use the onion-flavored oil to deep-brown some pureed onion (with tomato). Add the ground spices to that onion mush and brown quite deeply. I'll add more browned onion slices to the dish itself, then top with that initial batch of browned onions. Adds a lot of depth of flavor, texture and color.

                                        2. re: OnkleWillie
                                          r
                                          Rella RE: OnkleWillie Mar 27, 2012 05:55 PM

                                          Thank you for the very useful onions instructions. I appreciate it.

                                        3. s
                                          smtucker RE: overthinkit Feb 5, 2012 04:26 PM

                                          I really like CI, as a general rule. They do a great job of finding the secrets to East Coast foods. However, they are clueless when it comes to most non-American foods. Take a Madhur Jaffrey or Sahni book out of the library, find a recipe of something you want to make, and take the time to develop the flavors. The difference is distinctive.

                                          Also worth noting. You can make many Indian foods the day before. Like a braise, they often taste better the next day.

                                          1. f
                                            freia RE: overthinkit Feb 5, 2012 05:02 PM

                                            I used to have this problem until I did a few things. First, I made sure that I didn't use alot of spice blends. Curries are made from the individual spice components, including garam masala. Second, the recipe needs to be true to its roots, as in not watered down for a "curry flavorish" experience that appeals to perhaps a more mass market. You can check out any recipe online by simply googling it. Look for the south asian recipe collections and get a feel for what is in the dish you want to eat. For example, if you see that the majority of south asian recipe collections call for a number of spices and the one you have calls for one or two, take a chance and go for the south asian one.
                                            Third, make sure you cook your spices! Many recipes call for adding the spices at the end of the dish, which means their flavors aren't released, making for a bland result. Pretty much every recipe I have starts off with...oil, onions/ginger etc. brown well, then add spices and fry for several minutes. Or they start right off with the spices. Uncooked spices equals unreleased flavor.
                                            Last, get your spices from south asian markets in small quantities. The ones at the grocery store that are bottled could be quite old. No guarantee that the south asian ones are any fresher but I'd take my chances. Or a Bulk Barn, where you buy in bulk. Buy as you need, store in a cool dark area. And don't store for very long. The longer you store them, the less flavorful they become.
                                            :)

                                            1. applgrl RE: overthinkit Feb 29, 2012 01:39 PM

                                              Check out the website "Manjula's Kitchen". Lovely lady, cooking in her own kitchen. She doesn't use a lot of onion or garlic, perhaps her particular style of regional cooking. But, her methods with oil, spice, etc have taught me a lot.

                                              9 Replies
                                              1. re: applgrl
                                                1sweetpea RE: applgrl Feb 29, 2012 02:23 PM

                                                I used to try to skimp on oil to make dishes lower fat. I also used non-stick pans. These are two major classic reasons that Indian dishes failed for me in the past. You must use plenty of oil, you must have your cooking vessel at the appropriate temperature and you have to patiently wait until each step of the cooking process is complete before moving on. I have had to curb my tendency to add water if the items in the pot or pan look dry. DON'T, unless instructed to do so. Diluting flavors could be the problem. Also, when cooking with aromatic spices, respect that each lends its own bouquet to the mix. Compare ground garam masala that's been in your cupboard for months, vs freshly roasting and grinding whole spices. It's night and day. In my time spent in India, I witnessed fantastic cooking done in some pretty scruffy looking vessels. I wonder if the many years of seasoning those vessels have incurred is also a large part of the success of each dish? My last piece of advice is to avoid omitting spices or ingredients. Each one serves a purpose. Go the extra mile to find everything you need for a recipe, and avoid spice blends that will just make every Indian food attempt taste the same.

                                                1. re: 1sweetpea
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                                                  freia RE: 1sweetpea Mar 4, 2012 03:29 PM

                                                  And if you want to be super traditional, get ahold of some ghee or make it yourself. Peanut oil and ghee -- does an Indian dish good...

                                                  1. re: freia
                                                    paulj RE: freia Mar 4, 2012 05:18 PM

                                                    how about mustard oil?

                                                    1. re: paulj
                                                      f
                                                      freia RE: paulj Mar 4, 2012 05:26 PM

                                                      and black mustard seeds, popped in hot oil right at the beginning! We had a curry tonight -- whole coriander seeds, whole cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, a little whole fennel seeds, all popped in hot peanut oil, then onion, ghee, tumeric, ground coriander, ground cumin, a little garam masala, hot chili powder, fresh chilis, tomatoes, potatoes and chicken. Popped in the oven to slow cook. MMmmmmm...

                                                      1. re: paulj
                                                        fmed RE: paulj Mar 5, 2012 12:00 AM

                                                        The type of oil used in cooking is pretty regional. Roughly: Mustard oil is used more in the southeastern regions, peanut oil in the northwest, coconut oil in the west, sesame oil in the southwest. Ghee is used almost everywhere, but moreso in the north. It is also more costly, so it is less used in general compared to vegetable based oils.

                                                        Mustard oil must first be treated: heat it till it is at its smoke point, then cool it down. At the point, it is ready to use. If you don't do this first, the oil tastes and smells a bit "seedy" and is much more pungent. I can't recall where I learned this technique.

                                                        1. re: fmed
                                                          paulj RE: fmed Mar 5, 2012 12:25 AM

                                                          Does the choice of oil make much difference in the regional taste of the food?

                                                          1. re: paulj
                                                            fmed RE: paulj Mar 5, 2012 07:31 AM

                                                            For sure - specially in the south where the cuisines are quite fragmented along sub-regional and religious lines. Certain dishes are very similar between these sub-cuisines - except for the oil used. e.g. using sesame oil vs coconut oil will result in dishes that taste very different.

                                                        2. re: paulj
                                                          jen kalb RE: paulj Jan 12, 2013 09:21 PM

                                                          mustard oil is mostly used in bengali cooking and pickles- it has to be heated to smoke point - where it gives of mustard gas, stand back - and then it is sweet.

                                                          Id say unless you are going in for the regional food, other vegetable oils or ghee (as specified) are appropriate.

                                                    2. re: applgrl
                                                      y
                                                      youareabunny RE: applgrl Jan 10, 2013 06:32 PM

                                                      Manjula is great. I recently discovered vahchef. He is very colorful but has many kinds of recipes and from different regions. I believe Manjula cooks primarily North Indian.

                                                      Anyway I saw the list of 4-5 spices in your recipe. My best friends mother cooks every night, mostly southern Indian style, and uses probably 7-10 spices each time. Heats them up first, often in oil, and some you rub in between your hands first. Granted, she cooks vegetarian so maybe that is why she uses many spices.

                                                      Almost everything she cooks includes:
                                                      Asafoetida (hing)
                                                      Mustard seed
                                                      Coriander (fresh or seeds)
                                                      Garam masala or sambar
                                                      Cumin seed
                                                      Green chili

                                                      And often:
                                                      Curry leaves
                                                      Chili powder
                                                      Dahl in many forms
                                                      Jeera

                                                      And probably lots of things I'm forgetting.

                                                      And I believe the certain type of oil you use matters too. Sometimes she serves ghee or sesame on the side, to stir into your plate for your own taste. Good luck.

                                                    3. p
                                                      PepinRocks RE: overthinkit Mar 4, 2012 07:15 PM

                                                      I like Cooks Illustrated. But if you want to cook good Indian Food ... that's not a particularly good source.

                                                      Hopefully you have an Indian market around, especially a good big one like Patel Brothers. Try getting some packages of Shan seasonings. They are very good and reasonable. And you won't need much of it to get a really good result It's a lot trickier to make your own blends unless you really have the talent for it or have someone to teach you. Or want to do a lot of experimentation.

                                                      Here are 2 basic recipes that can be varied in LOTS of ways.

                                                      Basic 1
                                                      - Slice thin a medium onion and saute until translucent with 1-2 TB canola oil or ghee
                                                      - Push onions to perimeter of skillet
                                                      - Add some pureed garlic and ginger to middle with 1 TB oil to middle of skillet and saute until it starts to brown
                                                      - Add 1-2 TB good soy sauce and mix the whole thing together
                                                      - Sprinkle some Shan seasoning over the whole mix and stir it around and cover on low heat for 1-2 min.
                                                      - Taste and figure out if it needs more spice or whatever.
                                                      - Stir in 1/3 - 1/2 can of shaken Coconut Milk.

                                                      Cover and let simmer for 1-2 min. Then uncover if you want to thicken it up.

                                                      Variations are really easy.
                                                      - skip the coconut milk but finish it with 1-4 TB tomato paste and crushed dried fenugreek
                                                      - Pulse 2oz some almonds or walnuts or cashews in your food processor to get small pieces (if you dont have one then crush up using whatever means at hand). Right after garlic/ginger, stir this in and let saute for 3-4 min or until slightly brown. Once you later add the cocunut milk and let that simmer for several minutes a wonder gentle nutty flavor will work its way through the sauce.

                                                      BASIC 2 ... is a lot like basic 1. BUT - the onion to start with is PUREED in your blender. And then there is more thinly sliced sauteed onion that is added in near the end of the dish (separately sauteed while you are doing the other stuff (or done first and then put into a dish until you need it).

                                                      I do own cumin, tumeric, cardamon etc. Honestly, I prefer to rely on using about 8-10 different spice mixes for the most part as "curry" mixes. But I highly customize how and when to use each, along with other spices (srirachi sauce, different soy sauces, chili sauce, black bean sauce, miso - the list goes ON and on).

                                                      RE: cardamon - only green cardamon is the good stuff. The black stuff is garbage Green cardamon is expensive and goes a long way so you only need a small bit. Just wrap it tightly and it'll stay pretty well. Whole, unground spices last QUITE A WHILE. I've had whole cloves that were YEARS old but when ground up were AWESOME in a pumkin pie.

                                                      PUREED GARLIC AND GINGER.
                                                      Here are two more staples that I make myself - about 12 oz at a time. So, this way, you'll have whatever you need on hand, except the slices onions. The procedure for each is pretty much the same:

                                                      Peel garlic and leave whole. Peel ginger and slice it 1/4" or thinner. Roast each separately with a good amount of olive oil in an oven at 350 on a roasting pan or whatever - until they start to turn light brown - probably about 25 min.

                                                      Don't worry about over-roasting them, as long as they aren't over-browned or burnt. This whole step is about ensuring that every bit of bacteria is completely dead. Since we'll be refrigerating them later in oil - this is essential so that there will be no danger of botulism. Let sit and cool until it's no longer too hot - so that you can puree in the blender. Store refrigerated in jars.

                                                      Good luck!

                                                      6 Replies
                                                      1. re: PepinRocks
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                                                        freia RE: PepinRocks Mar 4, 2012 07:34 PM

                                                        Sorry, but I don't recall seeing many, if any South Asian recipes that call for miso, black bean sauce, or soy sauces...interesting....sounds more like Indian-Chinese fusion type dishes to me? I'm more familiar with tomato based, yogort based, or tamarind based sauce bases for traditional South Asian cuisine....:)

                                                        1. re: freia
                                                          p
                                                          PepinRocks RE: freia Mar 4, 2012 07:44 PM

                                                          Some of my curries are more "pure Indian style", some are what I choose to do at the moment. I prefer to add sodium much of the time using a bit of really good soy sauce instead of just some sea salt or kosher salt.

                                                          I assure you that my curries are damn good. If the OP wants only traditional curries, they can choose their ingredients accordingly, they can very readily avoid "non purist" spices.

                                                          1. re: freia
                                                            paulj RE: freia Mar 4, 2012 08:32 PM

                                                            What do you think Indians eat when they want to go out for Chinese? Just like there is American-Chinese food, there is Indo-Chinese food.
                                                            http://www.indianfoodforever.com/indo...

                                                            In the other direction there are Chinese (and Japanese) curries.

                                                            And in Singapore, cooking traditions from half a dozen countries reside side by side, including Chinese and Indian.

                                                            1. re: paulj
                                                              f
                                                              freia RE: paulj Mar 4, 2012 09:03 PM

                                                              No, I understand completely. I get the concept of fusion and pan-asian cusine. I just read the OPs question as "I made traditional Indian food aka curry and tikka masala and it was bland" (and yes, I understand the origin of tikka masala is a bit cloudy but nonetheless it is seen as a traditional indian dish). To me, this question meant "how do I make traditional Indian foods as in those foods one would see at a usual Indian restaurant more flavorful when I'm cooking at home". I'm not sure that adding soya sauce and/or miso would be the answer in this particular case. Now, of course, if the question was "what do I do to make Indian fusion cusine more flavorful" I'd understand the answer a bit better.
                                                              In my opinion, this is like trying to defend the substitution of couscous for pasta in a lasagne, and saying that "well, Algeria is pretty close to Italy and they have similar climates so what do you think Italians do when they want to eat other kinds of food?" and still considering the result as a "traditional Italian recipe".
                                                              And I have no doubt that you do make slammin' curries, Pepinrocks. Just was a bit interested in the response as I'd never considered using pan-Asian products in my traditional Indian recipes. I may give it a try!
                                                              JMHO, thats all :)

                                                              1. re: freia
                                                                m
                                                                mugen RE: freia Jan 10, 2013 03:13 PM

                                                                What are the origins of tikka masala? I thought that it was a traditional Rajasthani preparation: from my basic understanding of Hindi, it's one of those perfectly literal descriptors, where tikka means 'chunks' or 'small pieces' and masala means 'mix', for pieces of chicken/fish that are coated in a marinade, cooked in a tandoor, and then returned to a basic masala curry.

                                                          2. re: PepinRocks
                                                            chefj RE: PepinRocks Jan 12, 2013 02:18 PM

                                                            Black Cardamom has its own flavor and really has nothing to do with Green Cardamom. One is not inferior to the other or a substitution for the another.
                                                            It has a smokey, Camphorish flavor and is also used in Western Chinese Cuisine.

                                                          3. Robin Joy RE: overthinkit Mar 5, 2012 12:40 AM

                                                            As a curry loving Brit, I suggest you look no further than this:

                                                            http://www.curryfrenzy.com/

                                                            1. r
                                                              rasputina RE: overthinkit Mar 5, 2012 09:28 AM

                                                              Don't get recipes for international foods from CI. It's that simple. Get a good Indian cookbook.

                                                              1. g
                                                                GTM RE: overthinkit Jul 11, 2012 12:09 AM

                                                                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZF27oD...
                                                                Indian Chicken Tikka

                                                                Kashmiri red chili = warm paprika, unsmoked

                                                                gram flour = chickpea flour, also sold as 'besan"

                                                                ajwain = carom seed

                                                                buy all these from Indian stores, or mailorder e.g. iShopIndian

                                                                Keep your whole spices in glass bottles in a refrigerator.

                                                                A simple garam masala for this = cumin seed 8 parts, coriander seed 1 part, shiah zeera 1-2parts, 1 or 2 black cardamoms peeled, piece of cassia or cinnamon, very lightly roast, then grind in a dedicated coffee grinder, add a little grated nutmeg, about 1/4 of a nut, store inglass babyfood jar in freezer.

                                                                If you can charbroil your chicken over coals or a gas grill, you will get a very special flavor. Or use bits cut from a tandoori chicken.
                                                                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gh-SZ1...

                                                                Indian Chicken Tikka Masala

                                                                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWoxlX...

                                                                Chicken tikka

                                                                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPCwH8...

                                                                chicken tikka masala

                                                                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hY2qT1...

                                                                Mother's Chicken Curry

                                                                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiPQ1c...

                                                                Pakistani chicken curry

                                                                1. The Professor RE: overthinkit Jan 10, 2013 03:52 PM

                                                                  Get some 'hing' powder for your Indian cupboard. Intense stuff, but little bit of it in many Indian dishes adds the extra 'something' you may be missing.

                                                                  2 Replies
                                                                  1. re: The Professor
                                                                    a
                                                                    anakalia RE: The Professor Jan 12, 2013 08:43 PM

                                                                    I agree, when I was first cooking Indian food, I was too lazy/ confused to buy asafoetida (also, curry leaves). Once I finally did, and started using them in various dishes, I realized it made a huge difference (especially the asafoetida).
                                                                    Also, using ghee instead of oil improves most recipes, adding a richer and deeper flavor, in my opinion.

                                                                    1. re: anakalia
                                                                      p
                                                                      pine time RE: anakalia Jan 13, 2013 08:56 AM

                                                                      re: ghee. Some instructions say that ghee is the same as plain clarified butter. Per my reading (and Indian in-laws), after clarifying, there's one more step that adds much more flavor: a very slight browning (relatives call it "toasting") that adds even more depth of flavor. Especially noticeable and delicious on homemade naan.

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