Language Skills

I am always amazed when I hear people (not just chefs, but actual people -- enthusiastic home cooks) talk about the combinations of flavors they imagine in their heads, especially when it comes to Indian spices and techniques. Sometimes, it's true, my amazement is more like "oh my god gross" than "eureka!", but mostly it is admiration. I like when people think outside the (spice) box, if it results in something good to eat.

Someone told me recently about a dish he made with leeks with karela (bitter melon), which is as culture-clashy as I can imagine. Another person told me about substituting daikon for grated coconut in a South Indian curry. I didn't have a chance to taste either of these concoctions, but what struck me most hearing about them was the chutzpah -- the willingness to start throwing things together to see what works.

I can be like that in the kitchen, but rarely when it comes to Indian food. I can add Indian flavors to non-Indian dishes, but I will never come up with nouvelle Indian cuisine. (Except by accident, I suppose, when I remember a dish incorrectly and substitute channa dal for toovar dal or something like that. I KNOW CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE.) 

I speak Indian food as a second language -- one that I was exposed to almost every day growing up, and that I speak fluently without it being my mother tongue. I don't have the lack of self-consciousness that a person new to the language might have, barreling forth with terrible grammar and mangled vocabulary accompanied by a thrill at being able to say anything at all. But neither do I have the confidence of a native speaker, whose instinctive understanding allows her to make jokes and puns and engage in word play, to mold the language to her imaginings. I am more correct than the neophyte, more cautious than the cook for whom Indian cuisine is a mother tongue. I'm stuck somewhere on the high side of proficiency.

Indian-Style Southern Fried Chicken
Serves 6

This recipe was inspired by a conversation with Suvir Saran about his approach to American classic dishes. The buttermilk/yogurt brine tenderizes the chicken and ensures it stays moist. The chicken is brilliant served hot, accompanied by the carrot raita below, and like it's pukka American counterpart is great room temperature, too. This is a dish that is made to be fried in a cast-iron skillet; the heat retention is unsurpassed, allowing for even frying with minimal greasiness. Spend the $20 to get one, or use another kind of really heavy skillet or pot and keep a close eye on the heat.

1 chicken (3-4 lbs), cut into 10 pieces (2 drums, 2 thighs, 2 wings, and each breast half cut into 2)
1.5 c buttermilk
1 c plain yogurt
1 tsp garam masala
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
2 bay leaves
1/2-1 tsp red chili powder
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tsp grated ginger
freshly ground black pepper
kosher salt
juice of 1 lime
2 c all-purpose flour
canola oil

1. In a small frying pan, toast the cumin seeds over medium-high heat until they turn color and give off a spicy aroma. Remove and grind in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Set aside. Do the same thing with the coriander seeds.

2. In a glass or ceramic bowl, whisk together buttermilk, yogurt, garam masala, 1 tsp each of the ground cumin and coriander powders, bay leaves, chili powder, garlic, ginger, 1/2 tsp black pepper, lime juice, and 2 heaping teaspoons of kosher salt. Add chicken pieces and coat well with the marinade. Refrigerate for 6-8 hours.

3. When you're ready to fry the chicken, remove the bowl from the fridge and let it hang out on the counter while you're getting things ready. Place a rack on top of a cookie sheet and put in a 200º F oven. Place a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and add canola oil till it's about 1/2" deep in the pan. Allow the oil to heat up. (If you have an instant-read thermometer, it should reach about 375º F; if you don't, throw a pinch of flour in the oil -- it should sizzle and disappear in an instant.) Meanwhile, in a shallow dish, combine the flour along with the remaining ground cumin and coriander powders, freshly ground pepper, and 1/2 tsp kosher salt. 

4. When the oil is sufficiently hot, take the chicken pieces out of the marinade, allowing the excess to drip back into the bowl, coat them with the flour mixture, and place them into the hot oil, skin-side down. Start with the thighs, then the drumsticks, then the wings, then the breast pieces. Make sure you really press the flour onto the chicken to get a nice, substantial coating. Don't crowd the pieces in the pan -- you may have to do this in two batches. Cover the pan -- I used a spatter screen -- and allow the chicken to fry, undisturbed, for about 10 minutes, checking occasionally to make sure it's not browning too quickly or languishing in lukewarm oil and adjusting the heat as necessary. After 10 minutes, turn the chicken pieces and allow to fry on the other side for an additional 10 minutes. Use an instant read thermometer to confirm that the internal temperature of the pieces has come up to 165º; remove and place on the rack in the oven to keep warm while you fry the rest of the chicken.

5. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Carrot Raita
Serves 6

My friend Ashok made this raita which we ate with the fried chicken -- it was a lovely combination. I'd never seen raita made with a tadka -- a seasoning of oil and spices -- but it really added a nice flavor to the dish.

1.5 c grated carrots (about 3 large carrots, peeled)
1.5 c plain yogurt
1/2 tsp ground fenugreek seeds
1/2 tsp ground cumin
kosher salt to taste
1 tsp olive oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 TB chopped cilantro

1. In a bowl, mix together carrots, yogurt, fenugreek, cumin, and salt to taste. 

2. In a small frying pan, heat oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add mustard seeds and wait for them to pop and splutter. Pour contents of the pan over the yogurt mixture and stir to combine. Garnish with cilantro and serve.