When I was a younger cook there was a period of time when I was trying to figure out how to make chili taste like chili. I gathered the spices and herbs that the recipes told me to gather and combined them as described. But the result always tasted like meat and cooked tomatoes. It did not have that flavor of infused seasoning that you want in chili. Later on I found a recipe that told me to combine everything in a slightly different way, and my chili tasted like chili again.
At the time I was happy to just have a decent chili, and I did not think about the implications of the recipe I had found. But now I realize that within that bowl of meat, beans and chili peppers is a deep lesson about how to make food taste right.
The chili recipe that worked had you saute the onion, meat, salt, pepper, chili peppers and dried spices all at once at the beginning of the recipe rather than assembling the whole stew and then seasoning it later. This turns out to be the core of an important secret. You can generalize this secret into three simple rules:
1. You need to use enough salt and pepper to bring out the taste of the food.
2. You need enough oil to distribute flavor through the dish.
3. You need to pre-cook the aromatics. There is a reason so many recipes tell you to “saute the onions until soft.” This holds doubly true for dried spices like chili peppers, or the various dried ingredients that make up Indian “curry”.
I should have figured this stuff out sooner, but I didn’t work it all out until recently. Doing my pan roasted steaks taught me that you have to put more salt and pepper on the steak than you might think for the meat to taste like meat. My recent adventures in braising taught me the importance of that trio of aromatics that are so important to the French: onion, celery, and carrots. Working out how to make a better tomato sauce involved realizing that yes you really do want to poach the onion and shredded carrots in 1/4 cup of olive oil because it’s the oil that will carry all that sweetness into the tomatoes that you add later.
However, I think no cuisine illustrates these principles of seasoning more than Indian food. I’ve never been good at Indian food. I like to make excuses for this, saying that I never had an Indian mom to show me how it works. But, this is just a smokescreen. The truth is that I’m not smart or inherently talented enough to make Indian food. In particular, I always end up with a bland mess instead of a wondrous concoction full of layers of different flavors and spice.
I’m not going to say that I have cracked the code on this, but I have at least managed to make a good dal based on red lentils. It’s simple if you follow the rules above.
1. Dice one large onion or two small ones. Also chop up a couple big tablespoons of ginger. Finally, chop up some garlic if you want.
2. In a spice mill, grind cumin seed, coriander seed, and mustard seed. I’m not sure how much I used. I got about two or three teaspoons of spice mix out the other side.
3. Heat up a soup pot and add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Make sure you use enough! Saute the onion and ginger in the oil until the onion gets soft, about five minutes. After that’s done, add the spice mix and mix it around so that the onion and the oil absorbs it all.
4. Add the lentils and stir the mixture around. Then add enough water to cover by an inch or so. Simmer this until you get a fairly thick mixture of cooked lentils and onion. It should not get dry, so add water if that happens. Total simmer time should be around ten or twenty minutes.
Easy as pie. And I finally got a dish that has the flavors of the spices infused throughout, rather than getting lost in the mix.
There is no doubt that seasoned (ha ha) Indian cooks will mock me for having taken so long to figure out something so basic. And there is no doubt that I deserve such mocking. But at least I figured out this much now rather than later. Maybe I can find someone’s Indian mom to come teach me the rest.