5 Steps to Better Indian Food

Indian food’s preparation seems to sneak its way into every conversation I have about veganism. I’ll start saying how much easier it is than most people think to be vegan and, without fail, I’ll get a reply of “Yeah, for you! You can eat Indian food every night.”

I’m assuming they think they can’t because Indian food it “hard to prepare”. I use air quotes because it’s really not that hard if you start with quality spices and fresh ingredients. To be fair, I did grow up in an Indian household and therefore benefit from being able to watch my mother cook every night, but that doesn’t mean there’s something magical to it. Do skimp on the salt but not the masala and taste often.

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These tips might not make you the Wolfgang Puck of Indian food, but they’ll sure make dinner a lot more interesting.

1. Two essentials for almost every Indian dish: Garlic and Ginger (and their good friend, Onion)

Don’t ever let your kitchen go without these essentials. Together, the slight sweetness of the garlic, the tang of the onion and the strength of the ginger lend Indian food it’s characteristically complex flavor. Just because it tastes complex, doesn’t mean it is.

Spices that you should always have on hand include: turmeric (haldi), which lends many Indian dishes their characteristic yellow color, and ground cumin (jeera) and coriander (dhania) seeds.

2. Let the spices do the work.

Speaking of spices, most Indian spice blends are just that. Garam masala (which, to my dismay, is often called “curry powder”), can contain varying proportions of 8-10 different spices depending on who made it. Normally, I would recommend making your own spice blends from scratch but, as that can be intimidating for beginners (even I use my mom’s sister’s blend), try checking your local ethnic or health food store for a pre-made version. If you don’t have one, the internet has numerous sites that sell spices.

Before you buy, take a look and a sniff. Good Garam masala will smell peppery and be brownish in color. Just a tip: If it says “curry powder,” don’t bother–It’ll just make it worse.

3. Instead of trying to cover up the taste of produce, use it in your favor.

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Too often, I see Indian dishes (at some restaurants) that seem to be made with the intent of drowning the vegetables in fatty sauces. There is so much sauce that you’re lucky if you can even taste a hint of the vegetable. Perhaps that’s the goal.

I, however, prefer to embrace the flavor of the vegetable. Broccoli, for example, tastes slightly sweet when roasted. Chickpeas are naturally creamy. Figure out what kinds of vegetables or legumes you like and use those. You’ll probably fare much better than trying to force yourself to eat foods you don’t like.

4. Use fat but not too much. Preferably liquid.

Most of the fat used in Indian dishes comes in liquid form. The easiest and simplest dishes start with a saute of spices and the magic three ingredients. I use the term “saute” loosely because you don’t really need a large spoonful of oil to make the sabzi work. Try using just a small drizzle and you’ll avoid the heavy, sick feeling that some people mistakenly associate with the strength of the spices.

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The same concept goes for chili. Although Indian dishes are often spicy, they don’t have to be to taste good. In fact, many of the Indian spice blends are naturally mild and the heat comes from chili added by the chef.

5. When in doubt, let it sit.

Indian dishes take on a whole new flavor a day after they’re made. Some even take on a whole new flavor just thirty minutes after they’re made. Unlike most American vegan dishes I’ve tried, Indian food tastes better a day or two after it’s made. The longer the food sits, the stronger the flavor becomes. I find this especially true for spongy vegetables like eggplant and mild legumes like chickpeas. For this reason, if you taste a dish right after it’s made, you might be inclined to add more spices–don’t. Wait half an hour, let the dish cool off a little and taste it again. You might be surprised at the result.