Wednesday, November 3, 2010
( This article appeared in a magazine, I take no credit)
The world has grown smaller. Oceans that once took weeks to cross are now conquered in mere hours; and the exotic tastes of the Far East that once came to Canada only in travelers' tales are now part of our everyday lives.
In the last five years, the Canadian Census counted over 450,000 immigrants from India and Southeast Asia -- people who forsook their tropical sunshine for our Northern bluster, but bringing with them a treasure-trove of Indian dishes. Whether you're eating at a restaurant or cooking for yourself, the breadth of India's culinary heritage is now a part of our culture. And while the sheer variety is somewhat daunting at first, a little bit of research and experimentation is all you need for the world of Indian cuisine to open its arms to you.
Spices: Where It All Begins
What makes Indian food so unique to our palates is its striking spices. Recipes call for exotic-sounding items like cardamom, cumin, turmeric, amchoor, and tamarind alongside more familiar names like cinnamon, coriander, garlic, ginger, and, of course, chili peppers. Indian cooks know the secret: only the slightest variation on a few basic spice mixes makes all the difference.
And yes, Indian food is known for its heat. While a spicy kick during the heart of a Canadian winter isn't such a bad thing, there's no requirement that Indian food leave you gasping for air. Indian food is about subtlety, not dominance – heat is only one factor in the mix, and if you don't want it spicy, it doesn't have to be. If you're cooking, adjust the recipe to your taste; if you're ordering, just specify how you want it. Everyone can enjoy Indian food -- not just those with iron stomachs.
The Indian Meal
It's easy to lump all Indian food under the term "curry," but the expanse of this cuisine is much larger. Nevertheless, curry often provides a diner's introduction to Indian food. Curry can range from a thick, wet, stew-like gravy to a dry marinade for roasting meat – so to try one curry is NOT to try them all!
Curry or otherwise, the main dish in an Indian meal is generally hearty and satisfying, and is usually built around a central starch. In northern Indian cuisine, that might be Nan bread, a delicious leavened bread baked rapidly in a hot brick tandoor oven; in the south, the central starch is more likely to be basmati rice, a long grained white rice with a uniquely fragrant flavour. In most Canadian restaurants, however, you will be spared the difficult decision – a meal is usually accompanied by both!
Authentic Indian meals usually also feature Dal, a puree of lentils, chickpeas, or beans served in a small bowl. While many Canadian restaurants offer Dal as a main dish on their own, the true Indian connoisseur knows that they make a light complement to a heavier meal. Indian meals are also famously accompanied by chutney, which is best described as a relish of fruit, vegetables or herbs. But, as with most forms of Indian cuisine, such a simplistic description belies the incredible variety – from mango, or date, to cilantro mint or onion, the possibilities are endless!
A customary ending to a traditional Indian meal is rice pudding – a smooth, sweet, and delicious treat with a touch of cinnamon. But don't miss the pistachio ice cream...
Try It For Yourself
Although it takes a bit of practice, Indian food is as much fun to make as it is to eat. There are a variety of healthy cookbooks on the market, and finding the spices and ingredients is easier than you think. Most big Canadian cities have at least one Southeast Asian market, and a quick online search will find many mail-order spice houses.
A foray into Indian cuisine opens up a whole new world of dining delights. Globalisation may have made our world smaller, but it's made our dinner options that much bigger. Enjoy!