Turning Up the Heat
My sister used to do an imitation of my mother cooking. She would raise her hand in front of her like she was holding a small jar above a pot on a stove. “This is hot pepper,” she would say. Next she would tilt her pretend jar down for a bare fraction of a second like she was adding less than a pinch of seasoning to a simmering pot below, then jump back and say: “Oooooo that’s spicy!”
That’s the food I grew up on. Not a lot of heat to it. Of course, even if my mom had regularly concocted meals that incorporated the headiest blend of herbs and spices, you can bet I wouldn’t have eaten any of it.
Whole cuisines were always off limits to me. I was way into my twenties before I dared to try Indian food. I warily joined friends at an Indian restaurant on East 6th Street—Curry Row—in Manhattan. I ordered the Chicken Tikka Masala (not exactly a challenging flavor profile, I know). I loved it, and it opened me up to whole new realms of food.
Indian food led to Tex-Mex; led to Thai; led to eventually trying ramen. (Who knew it would be so good?) When I began paging through “Flavors First: An Indian Chef’s Culinary Journey” by Vikas Khanna, (published by Lake Isle Press), I welcomed the chance to be led somewhere new once more.
Vikas is the Indian culinary superstar who was founding Executive Chef of Manhattan’s Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Junoon. “Flavors First” is part cookbook, part memoir, as Vikas shares recipes along with the stories behind them.
One of my first decisions in cooking from the book was whether to follow Vikas’s recommendation to buy whole spices and grind as needed or use the ground spices and blends I had on hand. He makes a good case for the former, and I decided to set using whole spices as a goal and finally bought a spice grinder. But the transition is going to be a gradual one. I didn’t want to throw out spices I already had, which were still pretty new-mostly.
Another choice was how bold to be in my selection. I decided to start with something somewhat familiar, and make his recipe for North Indian-Style Chicken Curry, since curries, both Thai and Indian, are on my radar these days. And since I am cooking during the pandemic lockdown, it wouldn’t be too hard to find the ingredients I need.
It’s an easy recipe to follow. A little heavy on the prep, but no major stumbling blocks. I couldn’t find serrano chiles, as often happens in my local stores, so I used jalapeños. Also, I chose the vegetable oil option over making ghee. (Ghee is on my list of recipes to attempt, I’m really curious to see what impact it has on my cooking. If you use it, can you taste the difference?)
Even though this recipe was new to me, I was rather sure I would enjoy it. I was right. It’s a tasty curry, and wonderfully fragrant. The depth of flavor offers a nice variation on many of the curries I’ve made recently that include cream or coconut milk. But it was a safe choice and didn’t really push new boundaries for me.
In his intro to this recipe, Vikas says that this curry is comfort food for him. It occurred to me that curries of all kinds have become that for me as well. So I guess you could say that if I consider this recipe low-risk, it’s a mark of how far my palate has come. In fact, next time I make it, I am going to be sure to go with a hotter chile as the recipe suggests, and ramp up the spices a notch.
It’s a constant battle to get past my fear of the unknown-with food, and in life. I take steps, just not always big ones. And sometimes you have to celebrate the wins.
It brings to mind a comment from a new boss of mine after she replaced a guy none of us could stand who had done a terrible job: “Can’t fall off the floor,” she said. That kind of summarizes my relationship with food and flavor-and, perhaps, with risk. Nowhere to go but up.
North Indian-Style Chicken Curry
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about two pounds) cut into 1-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup ghee or vegetable oil
3 medium onions, about two cups finely chopped
4 medium tomatoes, about three cups, finely chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons peeled, minced fresh ginger
2 fresh chile peppers (such as serrano), seeded and chopped
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons garam masala
2 cups chicken stock
Naan or basmati rice for serving
1. Season the chicken with salt and freshly ground black pepper and set aside. Heat the ghee or oil in a large saucepan with a lid over medium heat and sauté the onions until soft and transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, ginger, green chiles, cumin seeds, turmeric, bay leaf, and garam masala. Cook, covered, until the tomatoes are well softened, about five minutes.
2. Add the chicken and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes. If the sauce seems too thin you can bring it to a boil for five minutes or so to reduce. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Remove the bay leaf and serve hot with fresh naan or basmati rice, if desired.
Reprinted from “Flavors First: An Indian Chef’s Culinary Journey” by Vikas Khanna, Lake Isle Press, 2011
Originally published at https://www.lakeislepress.com on June 17, 2020.