Students who attend my culinary classes, strangers intrigued by India, and friends ask me an array of questions about preparing Indian food. Below you'll find responses to some of their most common questions.
1) What is "curry"?
"Curry" is a term coined by the British to describe savory Indian dishes that feature meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables seasoned with a variety of spices. Although a few spice mixtures are widely used, including garam masala, Indian home cooks use many other spice combinations to flavor food. (I love the flavor that develops by combining cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves, for example.) I recommend that you avoid the generic curry powders sold in chain grocery stores if you want to create authentic Indian dishes.
2) What is the difference between North Indian and South Indian food?
North Indian cuisine reflects culinary traditions brought to India by the Mughals, Muslim Turks from Central Asia. These traditions include the preparation of aromatic pilafs and roasted meats. North Indian food also incorporates more dairy products and features more flat breads. South Indian cuisine, by contrast, reflects the region's more tropical climate. Meals commonly include rice and often feature fish. In addition, many curries are seasoned with coconut. The vast majority of Indian restaurants in the U.S. serve North Indian cuisine (which includes samosas, tandoori chicken, and paneer).
3) What type of regional cooking do your recipes feature?
The recipes I feature generally come from my parents' home state of Kerala - a tropical region located in southwestern India. (The word Kerala translates to "land of coconuts.") See my brother's blog for some beautiful photos taken in Kerala.
4) What tips do you have for buying and storing spices?
Purchase whole spices whenever you can. They retain their flavor longer than powdered spices and can be ground just before you prepare a recipe. Store them in airtight containers in a dark, cool place.
TIP: Home cooks from my mother's generation often purchase spices in bulk and store them in glass jars that housed other items (such as jam, olives, or mustard). It is a good way to save money and to help preserve the environment.
5) Where do you shop for spices?
I head to Devon Street. My favorite store is Fresh Farm International Market (located at 2626 West Devon Street). It carries fresh curry leaves, which are integral to Kerala cooking, and a wide selection of whole spices and dhal (lentils).
6) Do I need special equipment to make your recipes?
Most of my recipes require basic kitchen tools. However, you will need either a mortar and pestle or a small coffee grinder to prepare spices. If you opt for a coffee grinder, strictly use it for grinding spices. (You will not want to grind coffee beans in the same grinder you use to powder cumin, fennel, and coriander! Ick!)