Thursday, March 23, 2000
Here''s the antidote for the bored, diminished, apathetic palate: Put a little jhinga on it. My food forecast is that Indian cuisine is soon to follow in the footsteps of Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Japanese and Thai, as the next hot ticket in American culinary taste. The inroads are being paved as we speak. Take, for instance, Wine Spectator magazine''s recent unveiling of the top 20 restaurants in the U.S. (Yee Ha! Highlands Inn Pacific''s Edge is entitled to jump for joy. They''re on the list with even higher ratings than before, despite the major changes the hotel underwent last year.) In "American Restaurants Reach New Heights in Food and Wine," the authors credit in particular "the world of great ingredients" that chefs today have at their fingertips, adopted from a global array of cultures and cooking styles. As New American food continues to evolve, the influence of Indian cooking will become more present--especially as people become more aware of its range of complexities and sophistication.
"Indian food is nothing but the right spices," claims Himanshu Sharma, chef and co-owner of Indian Summer restaurant in Monterey (see review page 70).
"It''s all done by feel," Sharma explains. "It''s not done with measuring spoons. In an Indian kitchen, to know what spice goes when is everything. You have a round tray of your spices that you keep by you in the kitchen. And no one but the chef had better touch that tray!"
Found on the tray will invariably be cumin, nutmeg, cloves, bay leaves, mace, cinnamon, saffron and two kinds of cardamom seeds, black and green. Interestingly, none of these impart heat. There are many regional cooking styles found in India, and the perception that Indian food is "hot" correctly applies only to certain provinces, usually in the western part of the country. Even there, the heat comes from chilies, rather than spices. "Northern Indian food is characterized by its richness," Sharma attests, "but richness from the blend of spices, rather than cream and butter."
The thing that makes it such compelling cuisine is that the blend of spices is virtually endless. Each dish requires its own mix. At Sharma''s restaurant, the spices are ground in a mortar and pestle, by hand, and placed on top of the clay tandoor oven where they''re roasted, taking on even more nuance. An authentic clay oven is wood-fired, Sharma points out, rather than the electric, stainless steel model we are more used to in this country. Shaped rather like a 55-gallon drum, the tandoor must be made of clay and seasoned every three months. To season the oven (I promise I am not making this up), fresh spinach leaves are mixed with brown sugar, packed on the sides, left to dry and then removed--yet another component adding to the amazing character of authentic Indian cuisine.
Just as with traditional French cuisine, Indian food has its mother sauces. Sharma lists six: tomato, onion, vegetable, masala, kadhai (an onion-pepper sauce) and cashew paste. And here''s another myth-debunking fact: There''s no such thing as "curry sauce." The name comes from the southern Indian word "kari," meaning sauce, that the British turned into a catch-all term that''s used to denote any number of spicy, gravy-based dishes.
There is, however, such a thing as curry powder, a blend of up to 20 pulverized spices, herbs and seeds that can include fennel seed, fenugreek, red and black pepper, tamarind, tumeric, sesame and poppy seeds, along with the spices already mentioned, as well as chilies.