Hattiesburg could really use an Indian restaurant. Instead of another Chinese or Japanese place, could we get some Indian food, please?
I’m in love with Indian food. I don’t mean the Americanized version of thick, gloppy messes of sweet coconut milk laden blobs atop mushy rice either. Before this mini obsession of mine, that’s all I thought Indian food was. And I didn’t like it a bit. I’m in love with real deal curries and dals with yogurt dressings and fresh veggies spiced beyond imagination.
The first Indian food I’d ever tried and actually enjoyed was in Vietnam, surprisingly. We had a free afternoon to explore while studying abroad, and I went to this small Indian place some other students found. They ordered for me and I was blown away. It was one of the best things I ate in the four weeks I was there. I didn’t eat much Indian after that for a few reasons: one, for lack of Indian restaurants (not the most popular cuisine in south Mississippi), and two, apprehension of the unknown.
Fast forward to a few years ago and a friendship that started over daycare and coffeehouse dates for chai tea. My new friend wanted to come over to cook for us as a thank you for having her over a few times. She was going to cook us an Indian dish that a friend of hers taught her how to make. Someone else doing the grocery shopping AND cooking?? No way would I turn that down. So I watched and drank wine as she chopped and mixed up one of the tastiest things I ever put in my mouth. No coconut milk required. And I was hooked. I had to learn more.
Indian food is such a beautiful combination of savory, spicy, and fresh tastes. Its fragrant bouquets of garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, and cilantro challenge your senses. The spiciness from the various peppers awakens your taste buds. And the simplicity of it all is the piece de resistance. Many recipes only require few ingredients that are likely already in the pantry or fridge. While being exotic in many ways to us simple southern folk, the homeliness of a pot of lentils and vegetables served with rice is reminiscent of grandma’s pot of beans and cornbread for Sunday dinner.
My first few experiments with the new recipes proved a bit challenging. Acquiring all the proper spices was my first investment. Most of them I found at Corner Market. I did have to visit Kitchen Table (darn, hate to have to go there J) for some cardamom. And I was recently gifted with a nice garam masala blend on my last trip to Portland to round out my collection. My next challenge was to understand the basics of flavor combinations and methods. Many dishes require heating the oil to very high heat, “cooking” the spices for a few minutes, and then adding the oil/spice mixture to whatever you have cooked. My first dal was so fun. I was amazed at the change of color and consistency that took place after adding the oil mixture. The broth surrounding the little legumes went from a drab gray to yellow and orange and immediately thickened to a creamy texture. One mistake I always try to make is to overwhelm myself and cook too many things at once. As I’ve been reading Madhur Jaffrey, I understand that traditional Indian meals are served as several dishes at once. While I find this fun to do when entertaining and time permits, it’s not necessary for a simple weeknight meal. One or two offerings are sufficient to satisfy that spicy craving. The dishes can always be complemented with simple vegetable side dishes and fruit that don’t require much more time to prepare.
I couldn’t remember the exact recipe for my friend’s dish, so I turned to Smitten Kitchen for direction. Turns out the dish I loved so much is called chana masala. It’s traditionally made without meat, but a meal isn’t a meal without some meat according to my husband, so usually I add chicken to ours. My first few attempts at this dish revolved around a jar of Pataks paste stuff (also found at Corner Market). While it tasted fine, I wanted to make it a little more authentic and lower in fat (that stuff has a lot of oil). I adapted my method more to Smitten Kitchen’s recipe that she adapted from Madhur Jaffrey. The beauty of this dish is that it can be altered in so many different ways with the amount of heat, types of veggies added (potatoes would be great here too), and spiciness you desire. This is excellent served atop jasmine or brown rice with plain yogurt on the side.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 medium onions, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 jalapeno, minced
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (can be omitted for less heat)
Couple pinches crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
juice of one lime
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon garam masala (I increase to 2 tsp for more flavor)
2 cups tomatoes, chopped small or 1 15-ounce can of whole tomatoes with their juices, chopped small
2/3 cup water (or more for more sauce)
4 cups cooked chickpeas or 2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken, breasts or thighs, cut in bite sized pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onion, garlic, ginger, jalapeno pepper, and crushed red pepper and saute over medium heat until browned, about 5 minutes. Turn heat down to medium low and add the coriander, cumin, cayenne, turmeric, paprika, cayenne, and garam masala. Cook onion and spices for a minute or two, then add the chicken. Cook until chicken is just done, about 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes and stir, scraping up any bits that are stuck to the pan. Add the chickpeas and water. Simmer uncovered for at least 10 minutes (can go longer). Stir in lime juice. Season with salt to taste.