Indian cuisine is multifaceted in part because it's meant for more than just nourishment. "It's a social act that binds communities together," says chef and cookbook author Suvir Saran, an expert on Indian home cooking. "To make that happen, you need a plethora of flavors and textures in the dishes."
Contrasts are a paramount concern. Cooks strive for a mix of crunchy, creamy, and tender textures; hot and cool temperatures; a vibrant spectrum of color; and flavor notes that span octaves from spicy to sour and salty to sweet.
"Restaurant chefs these days put cream and other goop in saag. For Indians of my generation, that's unacceptable: The smooth spinach puree is where the creaminess comes from on your palate," Saran says.
Saran's eye-opening technique here is to pat the tofu dry very briefly, rather than for 20 or 30 minutes. This keeps it moist and creamy inside, and the outside still gets browned. Look for ghee–clarified, toasted butter–at Indian or Asian markets.
"Chutneys enhance flavors in Indian food. Think of them as the ketchup, mustard, and Sriracha of the Indian table," Saran says.
Serve with naan, popadam, or lentil crisps, or pair with Manchego cheese. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
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Indian Chopped Salad
"Fresh Indian salads don't use oil–there's plenty in the cooked dishes. The salads are meant to be fresh, clean, and a little astringent," Saran says.
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Tahiree Vegetable and Rice Casserole
This ancient dish traces its roots to India's Kayastha community, who developed it as a unique variation of biryani. In tahiree, rice and other elements cook together, while biryani rice is cooked separately and then layered with meat and vegetables.
"Toast the rice, as you would in risotto, to draw out fragrance and add nuttiness. Add garam masala toward the end so it doesn't get bitter," Saran says.
This quick, simple stir-fry elevates humble cabbage to a starring role and makes an extremely hearty and satisfying vegetarian dish. Coconut and curry leaves make it a more southern Indian dish; northern Indian cooks would also cook the cabbage much longer, until it's soft and slightly caramelized.
"Chiles de arbol give bright, clean flavor and just the right amount of heat. It's the chile used in Indian cooking," Saran says.
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This cooling condiment pairs well with any spicy dish, like Stir-Fried Cabbage with Red Pepper and Peas or Tofu Saag. Fragrant tempering oil stirred in at the end gives a huge flavor boost. Look for curry leaves at Asian markets, or omit if unavailable. Add leaves to pan with care—they cause hot oil to splatter. Adding the salt just before serving helps keep the grapes from releasing too much liquid.
"The tempering oil and its bloomed mustard and fennel seeds add flavor and texture," Saran says.