I can’t really pinpoint when I started enjoying Indian food, but I am sure that it was in college. Where my mum was adventurous with fruits and veggies, “ethnic” food was not really ever on the menu in my household. We had Chinese food, but only on rare occasions and only when my dad was not around. Honestly, I cannot even tell you where there is an Indian restaurant near where I grew up. Maybe there is one there today. Regardless, once I was exposed to the saucy, richly-spiced entrees of Indian cuisine, I was hooked. Part of me just loved the absolutely amazing flavors of these foods, but then part of me started to dig deeper into what I was tasting. This was well before I knew what tumeric, coriander, fenugreek, and cardamom tasted like on their own, so it was difficult for me to distinguish flavors in the individual dishes. Only through acquiring these spices, then tasting and smelling them each in turn was I able to figure out just how complex Indian food can be.
If you are new to creating Indian food, but are eager to learn, I think that there are probably three good pieces of advice I can give you. First, if you have an Indian friend who likes to cook, I think that is an excellent place to start – ask them if they will show you how to create a basic dish sometime. You bring the wine and some of the ingredients for dinner. My dear friend Neena is an amazing chef, and she gets most of the credit for the success of any Indian-inspired dish I make. She’s the best possible cooking companion – capable, adventurous, and patient. If you know Neena, I suggest you ask her to cook with you sometime; you’ll be so pleased you did.
Second, I think it is truly important to read up on the ingredients that go into Indian food – you might start with any of the cookbooks by Madhur Jaffrey. I think that Julie Sahni’s books are supposed to be useful, as well. Reading through some recipes will allow you to gain an understanding of technique. You’ll begin to notice that, like stirfry cooking, there is a formula to many dishes that remains constant. Start with something that looks easy and decide to make it for yourself and someone who loves you – don’t be afraid! Just have a take out menu handy, in case. =)
Third, you should find an Indian market and fearlessly go forth into the aisles upon aisles of exotic ingredients. The best way to do this is on a full stomach (like any food shopping) and with no preconceived notions of what to expect. Have a list of things you want to buy (from the recipe you are planning to make that night) and get all of them, plus a few other things that look interesting to you, be they spices or a new kind of bean, or even some kind of fruit or vegetable. The point of it is that you should gradually build a pantry of ingredients; don’t feel like you have to get everything all at once. Part of the experience of shopping in ethnic markets is knowing that you’ll be back to buy something new next time (or you’ll find out that the place on the other side of town is cheaper).
Okay, enough preaching – for those of you who love the flavors of Indian food, but have no idea where to begin, this may be a good place to start. Though this is not an Indian dish, per se, it captures some of the flavors you might be craving. If you buy these spices, you’ll be on your way to building a good little spice rack, and you’ll find them in a myriad of Indian recipes.