Saturday, March 1, 2008

Nothing says 'I love you' like labor-intensive Indian Food

Yesterday, I went all out and spent multiple hours in the kitchen in order to produce an edible love letter. The final results:

Finished plate
Originally uploaded by Neenabeena

(Indian meatballs, Lentil Dal, Chapati, Cilantro-Yogurt Chutney, and Basmati rice).

D. loves spicy food and culinary adventures, yet has had relatively little experience with Indian food. Not that I'm any Hindustani diva. I did date a fellow from Kerala once, which spurred enough insanity that I a) watched as many bollywood movies as possible with the goal of both picking up some Hindi and getting an eyeful of Sharukh Khan, b) did my best to get along with his silently disapproving mother, and c) started teaching myself how to cook out of my parents' crumbling copy of Madhur Jaffrey's "Introduction to Indian Cooking." I was studying hard for International Baccalaureate exams at the time, and cooking gradually morphed into a physical outlet, a good break from Rousseau and Organic Chemistry that yielded significant rewards on the familial gratitude front. Having conquered the exams in late May, I decided to throw a big sha-bang for my Dad's birthday, presenting everything from Lamb Korma to Tomato-Tamarind Chutney to Kulfi (Indian ice-cream, sort of). It was outrageous. The whole episode ended with my Dad being one happy cookie, the cookbook finally falling into five or six distinct pieces, and me setting aside both the Indian boyfriend and any overly-ambitious culinary interests for college.

Fast forward four and a half years. D. and I are eating mostly vegetarian for Lent (another topic for another day), and I started poking around with Indian recipes as a way to make veggies more interesting. With a little help from, I replaced the old crumbled Jaffrey cookbook with a copy that has an intact spine. And set aside Saturday to introduce D. to Indian food beyond cheap all-you-can-eat restaurants.

Koftas (Indian meatballs)
Originally uploaded by Neenabeena

These meatballs were incredibly dense, very middle-eastern instead of the fluffy-breadcumbly-eggy American things. They were stuffed with an onion-chili paste, which was actually really soothing in contrast with the dense meat. Very complex spicing, but not overwhelmingly hot. I was a little disappointed by the sauce, which was onion-based instead of tomato-based or meat-based. Really, it was just because it looks like an Italian sauce. D. really loved it. Which is good, because he'll be eating it all week.

Lentil Dal
Originally uploaded by Neenabeena

The Lentil dal was perhaps the biggest flavor success of the evening, namely because they in no way resembled the "woody"-tasting lentils that we have all fallen victim to at some point. Given the amount of protein and spicing in them, the dal was surprisingly light (thank you limes!) and meaty-flavored. Search me, maybe it was the combination of spices that made it so succulent?

Finally, the diva of the evening, the Chapatis. Chapatis are an Indian puffed bread made out of whole wheat flour and water. THAT's IT! After my bouts of wrestling with Baguettes (successfully) and Ciabatta (unsuccessfully), this seemed eerily easy. Something had to be amiss. Clearly Madhur Jaffrey had never met Julia Child, or she would have devised some more complicated devilry. Or at the very least require that I use a bread stone.

But no. Mix flour and water, and let the dough "rise" for 3 hours (it won't). Divide it into teeny-weeny lumps about the size of a cookie, and roll it as thin as possible. Plop this paper-thin creation onto a smoking hot pan, and in thirty seconds it will start developing bubbles. No joke:

Chapati starts to bubble
Originally uploaded by Neenabeena

Once you do this to both sides of your less-flat-by-now pancake, you have your loving partner whisk the pan out of the way and lower the flame, and you DROP THE BREAD ONTO THE OPEN FLAME. You then holler sacrilegious exclamations as the bread PROCEEDS TO INFLATE ITSELF LIKE A BALLOON!!!!!

Originally uploaded by Neenabeena

Okay, so how outrageously cool is that?

So that's where Madhur Jaffrey gets you. Pre-collegiate, an absurdly grateful father and a renewed commitment to global urbanity. Post-collegiate, an absurdly grateful partner and a realization that, sometimes, all that 120K+ education hasn't enhanced your ability to appreciate some pretty sweet self-inflating chemistry in action.

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