Food: The curry powder conundrum

Food: The curry powder conundrum

I love Indian food! I add curry powder to many dishes!” This is an enthusiastic statement I often hear when meeting someone for the first time in Italy.

You can well imagine the puzzled smile on my face as I quietly wonder what this magical curry powder is and how come I have never seen or heard of it my entire life in India! Not too different from the ready Italian herb mix and Italian salad dressing we dredge our salads and pasta with in India—mention these to my Italian husband and watch his confused reaction.

Authentic and accurate

On further investigation, I learn that curry powder is a concoction of several spices (including ginger powder) created by the British to evoke the essence of Indian food. That’s great for convenience, but hey, come on, how can one size fit all? Every Indian dish has its own blend and balance of spices and aromatics, and not everything is yellow, right?

Natasha Celmi (right) elevates chickpeas—an ingredient that is familiar to Europeans—to a delish home-style chole

The British adopted Indian food during their time here and went on to create their own British-Indian cuisine (dishes like Madras curry and Bombay potatoes that can be found only in the UK). In recent years, several Indian chefs and trendy restaurants have made their mark on the London gastronomy scene, featuring both modern and regional cuisines. However, the Indian food scene in mainland Europe is still virgin. One big reason is that the cuisine of countries like France, Italy, Spain and others is phenomenal, and the people are very proud of their culinary heritage. But today, thanks to social media and fast global travel, everyone wants the authentic stuff. From sushi to ramen, pho to bun cha, dim sums to spicy Sichuan food, Europeans are eating and cooking their way through Asia.

So, it’s time to throw the spotlight on true Indian food and keep the wheels turning. Having moved to Germany earlier this year, I have been bringing the flavours of Indian homes to German and Italian kitchens through culinary workshops. It is interesting to explain our regional differences and how diverse the ingredients and dishes can be. At one cooking class in Hamburg, we made a Kerala-style chicken stew and a broccoli poriyal, where the elements of coconut and curry leaves along with a lighter consistency was a refreshing contrast to the more familiar and rich Punjabi dishes.

This group of Italians (above) cooked up an ‘Indian storm’ in the kitchen
This group of Italians (above) cooked up an ‘Indian storm’ in the kitchen

People were enthusiastic about the technique of tempering spices and rustling up a tadka while understanding the importance of ‘bhuoning’ the spice and onion mix to create depth—a concept simply interpreted by foreigners as overcooking.

Oh, the sheer delight of smelling, tasting, and cooking with bhuna jeera and coriander powder (as opposed to a curry powder pre-mix) and the freshness of ginger and green chillies! Yes, you do find most spices in regular supermarkets and every major European city has an Asian area where you get everything from bhindi and kadi patta to papad. The classic masala dabba is looked upon as a little treasure and people are fascinated by it, clicking picture after picture.

Enthusiastic eaters

By now I can say that Germans are an adventurous, fun lot who love chilli and intense flavours. I had initially cut down the mirch masala in my recipes, but the overall response was to ‘keep the spice level just like in India’ and so in went another hari mirchi.

One very enterprising German family who learnt to make an entire Indian meal when I was in Bangalore, went back and recreated a feast for Christmas. Hand-rolled naans included!

Kerala chicken stew and North Indian chole in the making in Italy
Kerala chicken stew and North Indian chole in the making in Italy

And what can I say about Italians, who are probably the best cooks in the world? Since Italians have always had such a rich culinary culture to boast about, they were not very open to foreign cuisines. Today, while being proud of their own delectable food, Italians have also made way for international entrants. I was surprised to see a lavish spread of gourmet sushi at a family wedding in Southern Italy last summer, and I thought—these lovely folk are ready to relish our desi khana!

My first culinary course in Italy (conducted in the Italian language) was in a town in Emiglia Romagna. Being a more cautious bunch of people, their general preference was to keep the chilli low. People were surprised (but later loved it) by how much garlic and ginger went in, much in contrast to their food where whole garlic cloves are taken out. I did mention that fennel seeds (saunf) make good mouth fresheners if they planned to kiss someone straight after an Indian meal! It was fun to discuss culinary similarities—tandoori naan vs a Neapolitan pizza base, paratha vs piadina, ricotta vs paneer and so on. The one point of speculation was about rice—our golden rules of not stirring basmati rice too much in order to keep every grain intact, and letting the moisture dry out completely, is opposed to the Italian method of cooking Arborio rice vigorously in a moist risotto.

Indian flavours, European culture

It is important to connect with the local culture and lifestyle to make Indian cooking approachable and easy in a Western kitchen. Moreover, with zero domestic help and busy work schedules, one-pot main dishes, which are light and healthy, using the vibrant local produce and minimum prep, are the key.

The Germans enjoyed making palak paneer kofta in a spiced tomato gravy (above); Masala chai pannacotta made with freshly brewed adrak elaichi chai (inset)
The Germans enjoyed making palak paneer kofta in a spiced tomato gravy (above); Masala chai pannacotta made with freshly brewed adrak elaichi chai (inset)

Italian meals are always course by course. Hence, we made an ‘antipasti’ or appetiser of tandoori gobhi with a minted yogurt sauce. Chickpeas are part of an Italian home pantry, so we elevated the humble beans into North Indian chole. My masala chai pannacotta and biscuit has been a super hit in Germany. For folks who are used to a chai pre-mix (not so great), they were thrilled to brew their own masala chai, savouring the aroma of elaichi and adrak. We made palak chena kofta using ricotta in a home-style tomato gravy, and it was all lapped up.

I am so proud to have this opportunity to share and showcase Indian flavours in European kitchens and connect with people over our culinary culture.

Natasha Celmi is a chef and food writer. She is the author of the award-winning cookbook, Fast Fresh Flavourful. Her mantra is Smart Cooking: minimal effort, maximum flavour using fresh local produce.

From HT Brunch, September 24, 2022

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