Cooking Indian in Italy — a Crash Course

For me, the most surprising thing about studying at the University of Gastronomic Sciences has not been the coursework. Sure, it is unusual to get to attend beer tastings and learn about the regional specialties of the Veneto region under the auspices of a Master degree program, but that I expected — after all, this is a food school, and this is Italy.

What I was not expecting was the degree of national diversity in my Master cohort. As I hinted at in my last post, this is truly a global program: among our group of 28, we represent 17 different countries across five continents. We come from Austria, Australia, Canada, Ecuador, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland Puerto Rico, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. And many of us brought along  the recipes, spices, and delicacies that mean home, creating the opportunity to share national dishes.

I think that the person in our program who brought the most foodstuffs from the furthest would have to be Tanya, who is from Dehra Dun, India. She brought along a whole separate suitcase stocked with a pressure cooker, packets of masalas, cumin seeds, chilis, tumeric — even special spicy ketchup. After I tried Tanya’s aloo tamatar subzi (potato-tomato curry) during the first week of classes, I knew I needed her to teach me some recipes. Over the winter break, I got just that chance.

Tanya's Indian spice stash

Tanya’s Indian spice stash

Dehra Dun is in Northern India, near the Himalayas, so Tanya generally cooks Northern Indian dishes. The regional cuisines of India vary quite a bit — the foods I’m most used to, like chana masala and chicken tikka masala come from the North, whereas in the South the food is lighter, oriented around things like the crispy, pancake-like dosa, which is served with various spicy chutneys.

In Northern India, meals must always consist of a dry vegetable dish, a wet vegetable dish, rice, and some sort of bread, whether it be chapati, roti, or naan (my personal favorite).  So, for my cooking lesson (and the dinner party that came after it), we made lentil Daal (dry), aloo tamatar subzi (wet), and raita, a yogurt sauce to cool down the spice levels. We skipped the bread because it would have been too complicated for the size group we were cooking for.

After some phone consultations with Tanya’s amma, we got cooking. Tanya’s roommate Liz, who hails from the Netherlands and is at this point becoming an Indian cook, helped in the preparations.

Tanya stirs the raita and chats with her mom

Tanya stirs the raita and chats with her mom

My first foray into Indian cooking wasn’t all that complicated — it just required a lot of prep work. We had to dice tomatoes and red onions for all three dishes, mince garlic for the daal and the curry, dice tomatoes and slice ginger for the curry, and mind the pressure cooker as it whistled away as it steamed first the potatoes and then the lentils.

It’s the spices, really, that make Indian food so nuanced and delicious. As you’ll see in the recipes that follow, we used lots from Tanya’s stash — cumin seeds, ground chili, dried chilis, garam masala (a blend of ground spices like cardamom, black pepper, and cinnamon), ground coriander, tumeric, green mango powder, and hing (dried ground ferula). You’ll need to visit an Indian specialty store to find some of these spices stateside.

[Unfortunately I completely forgot to take pictures of the final products on our plates. I was too hungry and excited!]

two blonde girls stirring subzi

two blonde girls stirring subzi

Raita
serves 8

2 small tomatoes, diced (not de-seeded)
1 small red onion, diced
500 g plain yogurt (we used full-fat but I’m sure low fat would be fine)
ground black pepper and salt to taste

Tanya says that she would usually add ground chili powder to this dish, but since she was making it for meek foreigners she kept it cool. All you have to do is mix the above ingredients (save the salt) well and thin out the yogurt with about a half cup of cold water. Place in the fridge for about an hour to let the flavors meld, then salt before serving.

Aloo tamatar subzi
serves 8

12 small potatoes, peeled and diced into large cubes, then steamed3-4 medium tomatoes, diced finely (not de-seeded)
2-3 medium red onions, diced finely
2 cloves of garlic, minced
4 tbsp sunflower oil
2 small handfuls cumin seeds
1 small handful garam masala
2 small handfuls chili powder (Indian, not American!)
3 small handfuls ground coriander
1 tsp tumeric
2 tsp mango powder
salt to taste

Heat the oil over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and toast. Then add the onions, and cook until translucent and just starting to brown. Add the garlic and stir, and then add the garam masala and stir again. Add the tomatoes and stir the mixture to coat with spices. Then add the coriander, tumeric, and mango powder, stirring. Add the potatoes and break up with a spoon. Add salt to taste, then cover the potatoes with a cup of water and bring the mixture to a boil, allowing it to cook until the liquid has evaporated and the flavors meld. You may want to add more garam masala and chili powder. Serve with basmati rice.

Daal

300 g brown lentils, cooked
3-4 medium tomatoes, finely diced as for the curry
2-3 medium red onions, same2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 inch of ginger, minced
2 small handfuls cumin seeds
2 dried Indian chilis, crushed with your fingers
1 small handful garam masala
3 small handfuls ground coriander
1 tsp tumeric
1 small handful hing
2 tbsp ghee (clarified butter)
salt to taste

Heat the ghee over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent and just starting to brown. Add the garlic and ginger, then add the tomatoes and stir. Add the cumin seeds, dried chilis, and hing and stir well. Then add the garam masala, coriander, and tumeric. Add the cooked lentils and stir to coat with spices. Add a cup of water and the salt and bring the mixture to a boil, turn down the heat and cook until the liquid has cooked off and the flavors meld. You might want to add more garam masala. Serve with the aloo tamatar subzi (or your wet vegetable) and basmati rice. Serve the raita on the side to cool down the heat.

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