I have stepped into the grand adventure of teaching myself how to cook the cuisine of the subcontinent India. It is not an easy task, and involves hours of research, reading, and learning techniques in the kitchen. Mostly it is a language barrier.
During the research process, I have discovered that terminology is specific to region. Names of ingredients and processes are different, but mean the same thing. And that can be terribly confusing for someone trying to learn how to cook new foods.
The prime example is the backbone of India cuisine, Masala. But what is it, and how do you define it? Wikipedia says “any spice mixture.” And that can mean either a dry spice mix, or a cooked spice mix. But how is it determined? Almost every website I read has a different kind of description for the same thing. Masala can be a wet or dry spice mix. chaat is a dry mixture, punjabi is a wet mixture. However, more identification of regions is necessary for my American head to wrap around. I am trying to learn something on my own, that most Indian cooks know instinctively, through language and region.
India cuisine has had many influences on it’s flavors and styles. It is hard to know what food was cooked prior to the euro invasion. Potatoes, eggplant, and many chili’s came from the New World via the Portugese. Other influences over the last several centuries has determined what kind of curry, or masala, or rice (biryana) I am cooking.
The next book I will be reading is called Curry, a tale of cooks and conquerors. It will be interesting to see what I learn, and how much of it makes sense. Bouncing around the web reading about punjabi, and chaat, and masala, and curries, and subjis (or subzis) is spinning my culinary knowledge wheels. I don’t have a road map here, and I feel lost. As a chef, I want to know the culinary secrets of India Cuisine. When I discuss it, I would like to sound at least knowledgeable in some small way.
And really, wouldn’t it just be easier to go to India to learn about the food? Travel around, cooking and eating my way through the ingredients, styles, techniques, and choices of the land?