Thursday, January 7, 2010

Indian Cooking

To my (adorable) nephew, I'm Velymama. That means, in Malayalam, you guessed it: White Aunt. So, I'm told. It could mean "stupid white girl doesn't understand our language" for all I know.

Anyway, the point is, I am. White, not stupid. I've learned a lot about my family's Indian roots over the years, but I still have a lot to learn. But, since yesterday was Ben's birthday, I decided to make him and his buddies an Indian feast.

As I was cooking (all FREAKING day), I took some time reflect on what I've learned about Indian cooking.

  1. The internet is my friend. Pachakam is my go-to site for Indian recipes. It makes me laugh, because the Malayalam and English are kind of used interchangeably, and sometimes I don't know what things are. So then I go to my Internet BFF google, and all is solved.
  2. If you're uncertain of your cooking skills, serve to your doting husband and white people. He will be too smitten and impressed with your effort to criticize, and they don't have a clue what it's supposed to taste like anyway.
  3. It's not true Indian cooking if you don't dirty every. single. dish. in your kitchen. And every utensil, and definitely every pot. Actually, there's no way (unless you're my mother-in-law) that you have enough pots in your kitchen to cook a full Indian meal, so go ahead and plan on washing a few as you go.
  4. The reason for the excessive dish dirtying is that Indian cooking requires cooking things (getting a pot dirty) and then cooking it a different way (new pot dirty) and then frying some stuff (new pot dirty) to add to it. Also, you don't just add spices. You roast them (dirty pot), blend them (dirty blender), and then add them to the recipe.
  5. Indian food has some WEIRD ingredients in it. The only thing you can get at Kroger is meat, potatoes, onions and garlic. Everything else must be bought at your local Indian grocery. I know you might think you don't have one in your area, but you probably do. And, if you smile and look sweet when you ask stupid questions, they will be more than happy to help you figure out what you need. 
    • Yesterday I made Sambar, which calls for Puli (Tamarind). It looks disgusting. You soak it in water to make disgusting Puli juice. Apparently, it's very important when cooking Sambar. Yuck.
    • Another weird Sambar ingredient is called Hing, or asafoetida, or Kaayam. I have no idea what the heck it is or what it does, and it looks like bootleg medicine in the container. It looked so scary that I figured it was important, and put some extra in the pot.
  6.  Who knew that coconut isn't just for dessert? Ben's from Kerala, famous for its coconut trees, and coconut is found in many authentic dishes. I had no idea you could (or would want to) buy coconut unsweetened, but apparently you can, and definitely should when using it in Indian cooking.
  7. I don't want to judge, but for Americans new to eating Indian food, it can be hard to get over how it looks. Many Indian dishes look pretty yucky to ignorant Westerners
    me. But, look how pretty it looks before you cook everything!
 So, that's the summary of all of my knowledge. Helpful, I know. It's taken me 10 years to learn this stuff.


    Ritu said...

    What a labor of love!! Your mom in law raved about how you cook Indian food for Ben the last time I visited her. She was so proud of how you make all the food he likes.

    Puli and kayam make all the difference in the sambar. It does look gross but it makes that sambar taste SO good...I know I'm biased! =P

    I hope Ben loved his birthday dinner. He has such an awesome wife!

    Ritu said...

    Oh and Velymama is an aunt who is almost like a second mom....thats what I always thought. I think its short for Velya-mama.

    Anonymous said...

    Hahaha! I think it's spelt "vellammamma" which literally means "white aunt"...but what do I know either?! LOL. If I remember right you jokingly picked that out as your name and it just stuck! :) Kudos on the dinner - I haven't attempted any sambar ever and not sure I ever will!! We'll just come there to get some. :-D

    Rachel Carter said...

    And when you go to Rwanda, you will lovingly be called "Muzunga!!!" more times than you can count :)

    Quizman said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Quizman said...

    Great job!

    Tamarind is an essential ingredient to balance off the spice. Plus, it adds an interesting sour taste to the food. In Karnataka, we balance the sourness by adding jaggery.

    And use hing really sparingly. Use less than a pinch of hing in the 'tadka'.

    Turmeric is used its antiseptic properties.

    Re pachakam - There are other good Indian recipe sites that you can check out;
    and this guy is India's best food writer -

    Good luck!