For me, food is a celebration. I almost prefer spending long hours in my little galley kitchen preparing and cooking a meal over actually eating it. I get buried in the dazzling scents of ingredients and the wafts of heat from my cooker (and there is plenty of time to taste along the way). In recent months, the perfumed explosions of cumin and turmeric on my hob have turned a casual interest in Indian food into a full-blown obsession. In my mind, there is nothing mad about eating dal several times a week (even, the odd time, for breakfast). South Asian food, I am convinced, suits the student diet perfectly. It is healthy, exciting, and cheap – even if you might have to go out of your way for spices or ingredients.
“South Asian food, I am convinced, suits the student diet perfectly. It is healthy, exciting, and cheap – even if you might have to go out of your way for spices or ingredients.”
It’s worth getting a few things out of the way. Many students are no stranger to dal, of which there are many types: masoor (red) dal, moong dal, urad (black) dal. All are split, dried pulses; they are sometimes soaked and always boiled to soften. Unfortunately, and intimidatingly, these are only a few of the many non-English terms that are pervasive when reading about Indian cooking anywhere that isn’t old reliable BBC Good Food.
The base of any good spiced dish is a tadka, meaning ‘tempering’. Most whole and ground spices must be primed and tempered with heat to reveal the full aroma and flavour within them. This is done by dry-frying the spices, either before other ingredients, or adding to the base ingredients of a dal or curry just before adding wet ingredients like tomatoes or yoghurt. Often, this base consists of sautéed onions (nearly always red), crushed garlic, and ginger – these are well worth having in stock, at all times, and they barely go off.
“If I had almost nothing to spend on larder ingredients, it would all go on Kashmiri chilli powder, cumin, coriander, turmeric, and garam masala.”
If I had almost nothing to spend on larder ingredients, it would all go on Kashmiri chilli powder, cumin, coriander, turmeric, and garam masala. If I had a bit more to spend, it would go on asafoetida (also known as hing), fenugreek seeds (or methi), amchur (mango powder), nigella seeds (kalonji), and fennel seeds. Mustard oil is inexpensive and has a more full-bodied and wholesome aroma than vegetable oil; I avoid dairy, but ghee (a type of Indian clarified butter) is widely used too.
If you have a pestle and mortar, most spices (bar spice mixes, like garam masala, and the odd exception like turmeric or hing) are best bought whole and ground at home. They are fairly cost-effective too – a cheap pestle and mortar set costs a fiver in Dunnes – and stay fresher for longer than jars of ground spices. Cumin seeds are especially nice to have because they are frequently used both whole and ground.
It’s also a lot of fun getting to know my local international food stores. My favourites are the Bengali grocers’ on Thomas Street and Kwality Foods in Rathmines. There’s also the old reliable for when I’m in town – the Asia Market on Drury Street. A lot of people are hesitant to visit these shops because they are filled with unusual foods and almost nobody is going to know what everything in the shop actually is, which can be intimidating. They have also got a pretty accurate reputation for being quite difficult to navigate, but you get to know and love them in time.
We’re having a house meeting tonight. I usually judge it best not to engage in domestic diplomacy without a full belly, so I’m making dinner for everybody first. I’m making masoor dal with jeera aloo and pilau rice. Jeera aloo is often served as a side dish in Indian food: chunks of potatoes spiced with a tadka and whole cumin seeds. It’s not difficult and doesn’t need many fresh ingredients – the hardest part is simply boiling potatoes.
For this, I boil half a kilogramme of baby potatoes (I cut the bigger ones into halves) until softened but not flaky (about eight minutes), drain them, and set them aside to dry. I heat mustard oil (enough to shallow-fry and crisp the potatoes) in a wide pan on high heat. When thoroughly hot, I add a tablespoon of cumin seeds and immediately reduce to low-medium heat. As soon as the aroma boldens, I add two chunky green chillies, roughly chopped, mix well, and fry for a few minutes. I stir in my spices: a heaped teaspoon of ground coriander, another of amchur, a teaspoon of chilli flakes, and a half-teaspoon each of turmeric and asafoetida. When the mixture is fragrant, I add the potatoes, increase the heat and stir until covered in the mixed spices, and cover the pan, stirring again every few minutes until the potatoes are nicely fried and a little crispy (this takes around eight to twelve more minutes). Before serving, I squeeze the juice of a quarter of a lemon and stir through a handful of chopped coriander leaves. The food goes a little better than the diplomacy.
“A common misconception about Indian cuisine is that it’s all about curries and dal, but Westerners are the ones that love curry, which is why it takes such prominence in restaurants here.”
A common misconception about Indian cuisine is that it’s all about curries and dal, but Westerners are the ones that love curry, which is why it takes such prominence in restaurants here. The variety of Indian food is one of the reasons it has consistently been on my mind throughout this year. There are so many types of chutney and relish: fruity, herby, creamy; flatbreads like roti and paratha that are just as tasty as naan; snacks (chaat) like vada (savoury lentil flour doughnuts) and dosa (rice flour pancakes). I recently made a vegan dahi (curd) from coconut milk. The milk is heated until piping and then let to cool. When you put a finger in and it feels just about warm to the touch, you add the stalks of green chillies. The chillies act as a starter for lactic fermentation, and the mixture is left to sit in an open jar, until it sets somewhat (this takes several days in an Irish climate). It forms a type of live yoghurt, so one batch can be used as a starter for the next one as it empties. I used it in everything from kadhi—a spicy besan (chickpea flour) and curd-based sauce—with aubergine pakoras, to my morning porridge with frozen berries; you can use it to make lassi (a yoghurt-based drink which is usually spiced and sweetened with rosewater or fruit; bhang lassi is an interesting variation which effectively equates to a cannabis milkshake).
A lot of why I’ve been so intrigued by Indian cooking is owed to the ease of researching these dishes online. These days, buying a cookbook (that isn’t Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat) is quite overkill for learning recipes or cooking techniques. You can search pretty much any term and find a simple translation, usually by a knowledgeable source, and often with some nice history or personal notes. Vegetarians may find vegrecipesofindia.com useful, and although I don’t really use Reddit, searching nearly every dish on the ‘indianfood’ subreddit will show you different recipes according to taste and regional variation, which is quite helpful once you get into it.
It’s around 5PM, the city is darkening, teeming, throbbing cold. I walk to the Bengali grocers’ on Thomas Street to pick up some dry ingredients: another pouch of jeera, a bag of moong dal. My accomplice and I wander home by the off-license and a little later I get to work in the kitchen. Tonight, I’m making a cosy Bengali khichdi for myself and two housemates. I’ll leave a little for breakfast, too. I’d never heard of kedgeree (which, although a dish of smoked haddock and hard-boiled eggs, is apparently based on it) before very recently, but it looks like the latter is about as Indian as a shamrock shake is Irish. It’s a lentil- and rice-based dish, which is quite gently spiced and cooked until it softens to a porridge-like consistency. It’s warm, nourishing and comforting, and is supposedly akin to baby food in India. That won’t stop me.
I first dry roast the moong dal on a tray (about 180g serves 3-4) for several minutes until it is slightly fragrant and remove it from the heat—this imparts a slightly nutty profile to the dal. For the tadka, I add a bay leaf to a good tablespoon of hot mustard oil on a pot, with a teaspoon each of cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, and nigella seeds. When the scent is strong, I add a green chilli and a thumb of ginger, both finely chopped. When softened, I mix in another teaspoon each of mustard seeds, ground coriander, ground cumin, turmeric, and Kashmiri powder, along with a good pinch of hing. I let it cook until my nose is happy – the scent will peak after about a minute.
When ready, I stir in three big plum tomatoes, roughly chopped and salt the mixture, leaving it to cook, covered until jammy and sweetening. I add well-rinsed basmati rice (~150g) and the moong dal along with boiling water to the pot. I cover and let this cook for quite a while, stirring and tasting every five minutes or so until it has softened close enough to a porridge-like consistency, which will take a minimum of fifteen minutes, but can be left for longer for smoother results. I add a teaspoon of garam masala and stir through, top with coriander leaves, and serve with chutney, pickle or bread.