Indian food has always been an elusive thing for me to make at home. Thai, I can manage—Dave is particularly good at cooking it. Italian, of course. French, too. Indian, though, has been a no-go.
Now, I’ll be the first one in the car if we’re going out for Indian food. I would consider it to be one of my favorite things to eat, right up there with tapas. I remember a class I took in high school, though, when we had a pot luck one day for lunch. Each of us had to bring in a dish that was inspired by another culture. A strict vegetarian at the time, I chose India for its abundance of veggie-friendly dishes, none of which I had made but many of which I had eaten out at restaurants.
To say that I had no clue what I was doing would be an understatement. I didn’t have time to try to make dough and filling for samosas, so I opted instead for something that could be classified as “chop, throw it in a pan, and cook.” Maybe that was my first mistake—flavors in a one-pot dish would still need to be built and developed—but this is hindsight now talking. I also had no idea where to find paneer, Indian cheese that is often cubed and cooked as a main ingredient in many dishes. Unlike most cheeses, paneer doesn’t melt, so it’s comparable to halloumi, which is used in Greek cooking and can be fried. (I’m reminded now of my saganaki fail, but that’s a different story for a different time.) Even I knew better at the time to try to substitute it, so mutter paneer, palak paneer, and other tasty dishes were out of the question.
I settled on a huge batch of aloo gobi, curried cauliflower, for my classmates, the primary ingredients of which were vegetables that I could easily find in the grocery store. Needless to say, it ended up as an adventure in the kitchen, and I was upset to find that nobody, except myself and probably the teachers, tried my food. In hindsight, I can’t blame them. The flavor profile was overwhelmingly cumin and tumeric, which also made the dish a glowing yellow color that probably looked a little intimidating to the eye, especially for those who maybe never tried Indian food and this was the first time they were seeing something like it. Then again, I grabbed whatever curry powder looked the best at the store; I didn’t use fresh spices or develop their flavor by toasting and grinding them to make my own spice blend, which would have made a huge difference.
The experience, nevertheless, made me decide to give up any future attempts—until now. I put aside any fears I had and set out to make daal for dinner—quite literally the first time I’ve tried making homemade Indian food since this experience.
Eggplant and Red Lentil Daal
1 tablespoon of spice blend (recipe follows)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 small Japanese eggplants, cubed
1/2 cup onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup red lentils
2 cups water
1 cup vegetable broth +1 cup extra to add, if needed
Half bunch of cilantro
1-2 fresh or dried red chiles
Salt, to taste
Heat oil in a large pan with a tight fitting lid or Dutch oven. Add spice blend and chiles to oil, and saute until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add onion and garlic. Cook until onion is starting to become translucent and tender, another 5-7 minutes.
Add eggplant and lentils, stir. Add water, vegetable broth, and cilantro. Season with salt, cover, and cook until lentils are tender, about a half hour.
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon tumeric
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Add whole cumin seeds and coriander to a small, cold skillet. Turn on heat and toast, 3-5 minutes, on low or until fragrant but not burnt. Transfer when cooled to a spice grinder and grind until fine. Stir together with remaining spices. Store in an airtight container or spice jar.