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The soul of a cuisine

February 3rd, 2009 | 5 Comments »

I’m a recent covert to ‘No Reservations’, Anthony Bourdain’s travelogue of the different cuisines indigenous to countries all around the world. His travels dig deep into the heart of the foods that come straight from the ancestry of a culture; for Tony, the more authentic it is, the better he likes it and the more he implores you to understand, to accept and explore for yourself. Admittedly, some of his meals don’t exactly make me want to run for the kitchen in joy- like the brains, bull penis, chicken rear ends, seal eyeball and live octopus I’ve watched him partake in-  but there are times where I am so mesmerized by what’s on the plate in front of him that I simply can’t stop thinking about it. Like his two-episode sojourn through India.

I am a huge fan of Indian food, and I think that if Tony were sitting across from me in a bar with a lot of empty beer bottles between us and he was asking me his infamous question of  “If you had one last meal before you were to die, what would you eat?” I would glaze over in a cumin and cardamom swoon and list off all my favorite Indian dishes, one after another. From pappadums to paratha, from smoky Bharta to Bise Bele Bath, fragrant Daals and fiery curries, I could go out in a haze of garlic, ginger and smoke, lost in the aromatic stupor brought on by the subtle yet aromatic flavors of this fabulous food. Watching Tony’s two episodes and all those familiar dishes left me craving something, anything Indian.

Mike and I took full advantage of a recent kid-free Saturday, and after a thorough sweat bath cross country ski outing in 35 degree weather- and a shower, of course-  we dropped ourselves into the familiar surroundings of one of our favorite Indian restaurants for their lunch buffet. It helped. A lot. But it wasn’t enough. I had to have more.

I have no less than four Indian/curry cookbooks in my cabinet. Four. In prior times, I’ve cautiously turned the pages of Julie Sahni’s tome to Indian food- Classic Indian Cooking- only to close it and set it, with resignation, back in its spot. This book was a tough sell for me as I am extremely visual when it comes to food and it reads like a droning novel with no pictures. I like my pictures. But as I prepared my chosen recipe from this book, I began to realize why so few Indian cookbooks have any stunning photographs. Indian food, for all it’s red chili and striking turmeric glory, is not the prettiest cuisine to behold. My most treasured Baingan Bharta- a smooth blend of smoky, charcoal grilled eggplant with tomato and peas looks like a pile of mush on a plate, but explodes with flavor in the mouth. How do you photograph that? You can’t. It’s a cuisine that begs to be experienced, hands, eyes and nose with all tastebuds on high alert. It is not for the pages of a book.

This chicken dish I took on, simply called Chicken in Onion Tomato Gravy, started off as a massive amount of onion


that you brown to a burnished hue and to which you add the small green cardamom pods and sultry cinnamon sticks essential to the heart of Indian food


along with chopped tomato, an awful lot of minced ginger and garlic, the aforementioned turmeric, a dash of blazing red pepper and of course…..chicken, and cook it in that delightful mash until the meat falls apart at the touch. Then, as the cookbook tells you, you leave it for preferably two hours.

(insert the sound of tires screeching to a halt here)

Are you kidding me?

This smelled too good, and looked so amazing, that it was all I could do to leave it for a half hour while I fired up the rice cooker and steamed off  the basmati. Two hours?? Maybe if I ate this way all the time I would have bestowed upon me the patience to await such a feast. But I don’t.


Now tell me….with all that goodness on a plate, would you wait? Naturally this is one of those dishes that develops its flavors more as it sits; I know that. The leftovers will likely rock my mouth. As it is, I can hardly even wait for that. The taste was marvelous- slightly sweet, deep and oniony, rich but not heavy. Several hours later, Mike turned to me and said “My dinner is still so nice and warm in my stomach!”

(cue the stars in my eyes, birds chirping, the lilting flute)

(jump for recipe and notes)

Chicken in Onion Tomato Gravy
from Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni

2 1# pkg boneless skinless chicken thighs
3 large onions, thinly sliced across the grain
2 T. fine chop garlic
3 T. fine chop ginger
2 cinnamon sticks
4 black, or 8 green cardamom pods left whole
1 T. turmeric
1 t. red pepper
3-4 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 t. kosher salt
2 c. boiling water
Fresh cilantro
Toasted cumin seeds, crushed
Vegetable oil for cooking

Heat 2 T. oil in pan and brown chicken on both sides in batches. Remove to bowl. Add about 1/4 c. oil to pan along with onions and cook, stirring regularly, until onions are deeply browned and caramelized, about 25-30 minutes. Reduce heat if they start to get too dark or stir more often. Add in garlic and ginger and cook for five minutes, stirring regularly. Add cardamom pods and cinnamon and cook, stirring for 2-3 minutes. Add in turmeric and red pepper and stir quickly to coat onions. Add in the tomato, chicken, salt and boiling water. Stir to mix, reduce heat and simmer, covered, until chicken is cooked and very tender. Sauce should be nice and thick with the consistency of a stew. If it is too thin, remove lid from pan, increase heat and allow to boil to reduce sauce. If it has become too thick, stir in a little water.

At this point, the book calls for covering the dish and allowing it to sit for at least an hour, preferably two. If you have time, by all means do so. I allowed it to sit for about a half hour. Frankly, it was all I could stand.

Garnish with cilantro and toasted crushed cumin seeds.

The recipe originally calls for whole chicken, cut into eight pieces. I’m a fan of thighs and for this recipe actually used a package of thighs and one of boneless breasts. Use the whole if you desire. Cutting the onions across the grains allows for them to break down in the cooking process, leaving only the rich browned flavor and none of the strings (which, admittedly, I’m not thrilled about). You can use canned tomato for this, but really, should you? In a pinch it works, but fresh tastes best, even in February in Minnesota. Don’t skimp on the cooking time of the onions, and don’t rush it. You want them nicely browned. It looks like such a huge amount when you start, but it reduces to a very manageable amount. The flavor is out of this world.

5 responses to “The soul of a cuisine”

  1. Uncle Mike says:

    I’ll take credit for the kid free Saturday.

  2. Jamie says:

    This really looks fabulous, and I’m with you….I would never have been able to sit and look at it or smell it for 2 whole hours before eating it! And it looks so simple to make, too, maybe Jamie will have to try it. I love Indian food.

  3. Jake Jackson says:

    Looks very good!

  4. limeandlemon says:

    Sound and looks delicious … Laila .. http://limeandlemon.wordpress.com/

  5. Doniree says:

    How funny that you just posted about Indian food; I just told a friend of mine that I’d never tried it and I want to soon. 🙂