I arrived in New York in the late summer of 1960. John Cage, theavant gardecomposer with whom I’d come to study, was already a legendary presence, attracting not just musicians but a dedicated following of painters, poets and what would come to be called “performance artists” (although none of us called ourselves that). Cage’s philosophical blend of chance, Zen Buddhism, irreverence and noise was like electricity in the air, and we had a sense we were shaping history.
So whatever John Cage did, we all did. And that summer, Cage was eating Indian food.
Indian cuisine had established a toehold in Harlem, and there was one block on 125th Street with half a dozen tiny restaurants. They offered excellent, cheap meals, and when I could afford to eat out, $1.25 bought a curry (lamb keema, chicken khorma, beef koftas or shrimp vindaloo, for instance), a dish of dhal (spicy lentil porridge), mixed vegetable bhurta and rice, with hot and sweet pickles (including a fresh liquid chutney of coriander or mint). For a quarter more, there was alu paratha, a pan-fried bread with spiced potato filling.
Another element unique to those meals was A&J Jamaica Ginger Beer . It was the least sugary soft drink I’ve ever tasted, profoundly gingery and unfiltered — cloudy , not transparent! Long after I left New York I searched for something comparable. Most “ginger beers” are a syrupy joke. While there are good ginger ales, like Blenheim and Outrageous , nothing has ever come close to the intensity of that brew — until now. In the British section at Murphy’s Sunnybrae Market (odd bottles with amateurish labels) — Reggae Country Style Brand Ginger Beer , $1.39 a bottle. It’s the real thing : profoundly ginger, minimal sugar (no corn syrup I can detect), non-filtered and cloudy, it has enough character to stand up to an intensely spicy meal, and thus is the ultimate accompaniment to Indian food.
It was an unspoken requirement for membership in John Cage’s circle that we cook Indian food as well. So we invited each other over to taste our concoctions, and reciprocity meant there was no way I could avoid learning to cook.
I had never cooked anything. I went to a “remainders” bookstore on 42nd Street and found, for 50 cents, a small yellow book, Savitri Chowdhary’s Indian Cooking , which became a lifelong companion.
I was lucky. There is no cuisine on earth so adaptable, so versatile or so forgiving. I learned from Shri Chowdhary three important things:
1. Forget curry powder. It is not authentic. It is an all-purpose concoction the British used because they were too lazy to prepare a proper garam masala , or to use the variety of spices that make each dish individual and special.
2. Recipes can easily be adapted to fit the ingredients you have on hand. Avocado is not native to India, but one of the best soups I’ve had was avocado and coconut milk, swirled with a saffron sauce. Potatoes, chiles and tomatoes are not native either, but the national cuisine has absorbed them.
3. The precise quantities and deliberate order in which things are measured, prepped and cooked is loose. You will not destroy a dish by forgetting to add something at the proper time. Indeed, you may often skip it.
Without going into all the gustatory wonders that the various cultures of India embrace (e.g., dishes from Punjab, West Bengal, Madras, Kerala, Goa), it is possible to provide a primer for making excellent meals, with several dishes, each providing its own distinctive flavor. Yes, there are books (I have a dozen) with excursions beyond this basic level, but I’ve found them to intimidate beginners. Indian food need not intimidate; it welcomes neophytes.
Having small quantities of a variety of spices is a way to enter into the spirit of adventure. So let’s begin with a list of them. Buy them in tiny amounts at first; they are best when they aren’t stored too long.
Basic dry spices:
Turmeric powder (provides the orange color in “curry powder”)
Black mustard seed (yellow is fine too)
Chili flakes (best if Asian, not Mexican chile, which has too distinctive a flavor)
Fennel seed (anise is equally good)
Cardamom pods (whole)
Clove (in small quantity)
Fenugreek seed (in very small quantity)
Asafetida powder (in even smaller quantity)
Optional for some preparations are cardamom powder (from the tiny germ of the seed), peanut powder and mango powder. Experiment with these after you’ve mastered the basics.
(A spice mixture called garam masala is sometimes added in addition to the above: usually, ground black pepper, coriander, caraway seeds, cloves, cardamom powder and cinnamon powder. This produces a sweet-and-savory flavor. For now, don’t worry about it.)
Basic fresh flavorings:
Onion (white has more flavor)
Garlic (lots of it)
Ginger root (hard to overdo this)
Serrano chile (a close approximation to Asian mild chile)
Yogurt (for marinades, and to finish a sauce, also as a condiment)
Lemon juice (lime is good too)
Tomato juice or sliced fresh tomato
Unfiltered peanut oil (also used in salads)
Prepare ingredients as you would a stir-fry, peeling, chopping and setting aside. For main ingredients, you may toss them in a spice/herb and yogurt, vinegar or citrus marinade, preferably an hour or two ahead of time.
Begin with the sauce. For cooked dishes, start with butter or oil in a medium sauté pan or pot (use a bit more than you would for a stir-fry, as spices will thicken it). Add chopped onion, then minced Serrano chile, fresh ginger and finally garlic, and cook just long enough to soften. Then add mustard seed, cumin seed, fennel seed, and three or four whole cardamoms. Beware spitting mustard seeds — when they pop, reduce the heat. Stir everything. If it’s too thick, add water or tomato juice.
Now you begin to customize your curry. Depending on how yellow you want the color, add 1-3 teaspoons of turmeric. A bit of fenugreek and a pinch of asafetida provide a pleasant aromatic. If you want a hotter mixture, add dry chili; if sweeter, add cinnamon stick and clove; if more aromatic, add coriander and fennel. Don’t worry about the big spices — they will soften into the mix and are an attractive element of the dish when it arrives at the table.
Finally, add the main ingredient. Marinated tofu is not traditional, but this would be a great time to allow it to absorb flavors. Otherwise, let us presume that you are a making a meat or seafood dish. A good idea (but again, not critical) would be to marinate what-ever-it-is in a mixture of yogurt, chopped fresh mint, and spices (not necessarily the ones that are in the sauce!). Let’s say you’ve chosen chicken, shrimp or ground beef and mixed them with the marinade.
Once you have created the sauce, add the main ingredient, salt to taste, and allow everything to come up to temperature. Then reduce to simmer, and cook slowly until done (to prevent thickening, add liquid or yogurt). Turn off the heat; add a handful of cilantro leaves and a squeeze of lemon, stir and cover.
Rice is the perfect accompaniment, although the Co-op carries an addictive flatbread: spinach naan. This makes possible Indian “tacos,” although I’m not sure that’s an authentic way to do it. In India, traditionally food is served on banana leaves; you sit on the floor and eat with your right hand.
Now we come to vegetables. There are myriad raw and cooked combinations, and in fact Hindu culture is vegetarian, so an all-salad meal is not uncommon. I’m going to suggest a mixed fruit salad with sweet condensed milk dressing and a cabbage and carrot slaw with garlic and sesame oil.
Sweet milk dressing for fruit salad:
1 pint whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
Boil the milk, stirring constantly until it is half the original volume. Add cardamom and sugar. Remove from heat and let cool. Mix with peeled, chopped apple, orange, banana, pineapple, mango, pear and chill until cold. (As with everything, substitutions are fine.)
Garlic sesame dressing for cabbage and carrot slaw:
2 T sesame oil (dark is best; but even olive oil won’t be a disaster)
1/2 cup minced onion
6 cloves minced garlic
1 T seeded and minced Serrano chile
2 T sesame seeds (all seeds and spices profit from being lightly pan-toasted)
In heated oil, fry onion, add garlic and sesame seeds. When the garlic begins to color, remove from heat and add chile, lemon juice and salt to taste. Wait until just before serving to make the salad; combine thinly sliced cabbage, grated carrot and finely chopped tomato (boiled cubed potato is optional). Pour the sauce over it, add more lemon juice and toss lightly. Serve room temperature.
I hope I haven’t given the impression that this is all there is to Indian food. My intent was to show how easy it can be to make a basic Indian supper. There are infinite preparations, some taking days. If you are inspired by a modest success, the following books will broaden your horizons a bit more, and you may end up creating bhurtas, raitas, dhals and biryanis that will astound and delight your friends. But for now, it is enough to enjoy the flavors of a simple meal (one in which no curry powder was used).
Indian Cooking by Savitri Chowdhary (March 2000) and Salads of India by Varsha Dandekar (May 1983) are available, used, from Amazon.com, Alibris.com, and AbeBooks.com.
Joseph Byrd is embarrassed to admit that he sometimes combines curry powder with mayonnaise as a dip for artichokes. You can write him at email@example.com.