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Indian Food For Beginners

Learning the basics with Dr. Padma Garvey

Learning the basics of making Indian food

Sticking to a healthy plant-based diet is easier if you learn to cook dishes from different culinary traditions. Doing so will add some variety and spice to your life. Indian food highlights lentils and beans in so many different ways that you'll never get bored. My recipes all use less than one teaspoon of oil for 6-8 servings because often times there is too much oil in Indian food.   

Indian food can seem daunting because there are so many different spices and lentils used.  But if you simplify and learn some basic recipes, you can embellish with more practice. I am going to show you how to cook a typical North Indian curry and a typical South Indian curry.  Once you get the hang of the ingredients and techniques, you can venture on to more recipes.  

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North Indian style curries tend to be saucy, usually a tomato-based sauce. The first technique to master is the garlic-ginger paste. Many grocery stores sell tubes of garlic paste and ginger paste. You could combine one tablespoon of each paste, but making your own is easy. You dice ½ inch of ginger (leave the skin on) and dice three cloves of garlic. Place the garlic and ginger into a mortar and pestle and mash to a paste. The next technique is the cashew paste. Cashew paste gives dishes a rich, creamy taste. You can omit the cashew paste altogether. The dish will still be delicious. Soak 1/3 cup of raw, unsalted cashews in 1 cup of water for about 30 minutes. Then puree in your blender for several minutes. You can buy the curry powder sold at stores. Making your own curry powder is easy though. Take two tablespoons of coriander seeds and two tablespoons of cumin seeds and grind to fine powder in spice grinder. Or you could combine two tablespoons of store bought cumin powder and coriander powder.

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To make a simple North Indian style curry, dice one large onion and three large tomatoes. If you want it spicy, add diced green chili peppers like jalapeno. In a large skillet, heat one teaspoon of oil. Add the garlic-ginger paste to the oil and let it sauté until golden. Add the onions next with a pinch of salt. Let the onions sweat until brown. Add the curry powder next. Stir occasionally until you get a strong curry aroma. Next add the tomatoes. Stir the tomatoes around the skillet so that they pick up all the mixture that may have stuck to the pan. Cover and let the tomatoes cook until extremely soft and liquid. This is the basic North Indian tomato sauce. Add one to two cups of water and any vegetables you like. You could add mushrooms, potatoes, greens, garbanzo beans, green peas, tofu, zucchini, broccoli, etc. Cover until vegetables are tender. Lastly, add the cashew paste and one teaspoon of turmeric powder. Mix well. You can eat this dish with brown rice or chapattis, or whole wheat tortillas.

Learn how to make South Indian curry

South Indian curries tend to highlight coconut and lentils. The spices used in South Indian cooking can all be purchased at an Indian grocery store or through Amazon. My all-time favorite is my mom’s zucchini curry. You can substitute many other vegetables like cabbage,  carrots, kale, or kohlrabi. Soak 1/3 cup of yellow mung dal (a type of lentil) in two cup of water for about 30 minutes. Dice three to four large zucchini. Chop green chilies if you like your food spicy but this is optional. South Indian curries usually involve ‘cooking the spices’ beforehand. This does in fact change the taste of the spices. To a large skillet, heat one teaspoon of oil. After the oil is hot, add two tablespoons of urad dal. Once the urad dal starts to brown slightly, add two teaspoons of black mustard seeds and one teaspoon of cumin seeds. The mustard seeds will start to pop at which point you should add ½ teaspoon of hingh powder. Let the hingh powder brown as well which only takes a few seconds. Add the zucchini and a pinch of salt, add 1/3 cup grated, unsweetened coconut. Drain the water from the mung dal and add the mung dal. Add some curry leaves or a bay leaf. Add one teaspoon of turmeric powder and mix well. Cook until the vegetables are tender to your liking. Serve with brown rice.

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