Raghavan Iyer is a bestselling cookbook author, culinary educator, spokesperson and consultant who specializes in Indian cuisine. He takes pride in creating recipes from common ingredients, using combinations and flavor-extraction techniques to give his dishes unique flavors. In this installment of The Key 3, he shares with Lynne Rossetto Kasper the techniques behind three of his classic recipes: Smoky Yellow Split Peas, Sweet-scented Pilaf and Indian Slaw. His latest book is Indian Cooking Unfolded.
Here are Iyer's keys, as told to Lynne:
With Indian food, to me it's all about colors, it's textures, it's aromas, it's temperatures. You eat with all your senses. I've had people say, “Indian food -- it's all yellow, it's all the same.” First of all, curry powder ain’t Indian food. Second of all, to me the beauty of Indian food is creating complexity with not a bajillion spices, but maybe just one or two spices treated in such a way that you're going to end up with a complexity that just blows your mind.
The kind of dal we're doing today is done with yellow split peas. The variety of yellow split peas in India is slightly different, but look very similar to the variety that you find here. We call it Chana Dal in India, which is actually black garbanzo beans that have been split and the skins have been removed.
What I've done so far is wash the peas. I'm just adding water to it, no broth. Often people say, "Well, why are you doing that without broth?" Because if you think about it, the divas in Indian cooking really are the spices. You don't need broth because the spices really shine.
What I want to prove in this dish is first of all, the simplicity of it, 10 ingredients or fewer, and that it is about going to the main grocery store and just getting what we're familiar with -- potatoes, onions, chiles, cilantro, and so on.
You look at one spice, which is ground turmeric. Students in the past go, “Ew, curry.” I say, “Ew, not.” Ground turmeric gives commercial curry powders that notorious yellow color.
Four hundred years ago, when the English were in India, they fell in love with some of the sauces in the Southeast and the Northwest. They had their cooks put together a cornucopia of ingredients that they ground and put in a jar labeled “curry powder.” But as a concept, you do not have curry powders in India. To us, in a nutshell, if it doesn't have a sauce, it's not a curry. Not all curries have turmeric either. So in essence, a dal to us is a legume curry -- because it's saucy just like you and me.
In this dish we've got turmeric; that will continue to cook and add color and flavor to the peas. It will come to a boil and then we're going to get rid of some of the foam that sort of separates naturally as part of the cooking process. This creates a sauce that is a little bit clearer. One of the schools of thought is that it helps you digest it much better -- which, when talking to some of the food scientists, certainly could be debatable.
We're going to go ahead and add some potatoes, diced about half-an-inch. We're going to just let that continue to simmer and we're going to do that covered; that will cook the potatoes. While that is doing its thing, we're going to look at building the flavors in this pot. To this dish all we're going to do is add three spices, one is cumin seed.
I always say buy spices as much as possible in the entire seed form. If you give whole spices to a good Indian cook, he or she should be able to extract eight flavors from a given spice, depending on what you do with it.
We're going to add some coriander seeds, about a tablespoon. It's actually a distant member of the citrus family; when you grind it, it intensifies its citrus quality.
We're adding some chilies to this; these are whole chilies. We're going to go ahead and toast these. There's no oil. To this we're going to add the whole spices. When you're toasting spices, you're looking for the first color change and the first aroma change. You can hear that sizzle that is happening without the oil.
You can see what's happened very quickly: they're darkening, they have changed, this is all we're looking for right now. You can see the chilies have blackened. We're going to take this and we're going to add it right to a blender jar. Then to create a liquid base for that, we're going to add some tomatoes to it. Then we will puree all of that together.
There's a smokiness that comes through. This is what's going to flavor our legume curry. Once the potatoes are done, we are adding this.
It is a gorgeous dish -- this is what blankets rice. You're tasting the complexity that's coming through. It's a marriage that really works very well with this dish.
- 1 cup yellow split peas
- 1 pound potatoes (Yukon gold or russet), peeled, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (soak them in cold water to prevent browning; drain before use)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 2 to 4 dried red cayenne chiles (like chile de arbol), stems discarded
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 medium-size tomato, cored, and diced
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
- 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
- Even though dals are great draped over a bed of steamed rice, try them with wedges of flatbread dunked in it. Even when crusty baguette or other yeast breads are warmed, sliced, and served alongside, it makes a great appetizer.
- Yellow split peas that are available here in the US in every supermarket but are slightly different than the variety that grows in India -- I find those grown here to be a bit nuttier and very much corn-like in texture. The ones in India are from a variety of garbanzo beans that have a dark brown to almost blackish colored skin. When the legume's skin is removed and the grain split in half, you get the variety of yellow split peas in India called chana dal. The green split peas (what you generally use for split pea soup with ham hock) are a perfect stand-in for the yellow variety should you wish to use them instead.
- Puree any leftover dal in a blender or a food processor to yield an almost pate-like spread. Try and drain off a bit of the excess liquid before you do that. It reminds me of a Greek skordalia (potato puree with garlic) but with more texture and oomph.
- 1 cup white Indian or Pakistani basmati rice
- 2 tablespoons Ghee (homemade or store-purchased) or canola oil
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
- 6 green or white cardamom pods
- 2 fresh or dried bay leaves
- 2 cinnamon sticks (each 3-inches long)
- 1 small red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
- The whole spices used here are some of the most common spices used in some of the versions of Garam masala. Here they are left whole, gently infusing nutty clarified butter with subtle aromas and tastes. Great proof that not all garam masalas are ground in northern India.
- 1/2 small head of cabbage (about 1 pound) or 1 bag (14 ounces) coleslaw mix
- 1 to 2 fresh green Serrano chiles, stems discarded
- 1/4 cup dry-roasted peanuts
- 1/4 cup dry unsweetened coconut shreds (see tips)
- 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
- 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
- Juice from 1 medium-size lime 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- A decent-sized supermarket, worth its weight in gold, should stock dried unsweetened coconut either in the health foods aisle or the baking section. If they don't, grab that bag of highly sweetened coconut shreds in the baking shelf that is often a key ingredient in coconut cream pies and other coconut-based desserts like macaroons (my weakness.) To use it in this recipe, dump 1/2 cup of the sugary shreds into a medium-size bowl. Cover it with water and run your fingers through to wash some of the sugar. Empty this into a fine-meshed colander (think tea strainer). Dump the coconut back into the bowl and repeat with the rinsing, washing, and straining. You may need to do this cycle three to four times to make sure all that sugar is gone. An underlying sweetness is fine since freshly shredded coconut does have an inherent sweet taste.
- I am a sucker for cooked cabbage. Oftentimes with the leftover salad I will add it to a skillet with a little water to cover the bottom of the pan and heat the cabbage until it warms through. A little extra kick from a liberal sprinkling of ground red pepper (cayenne) takes care of my addiction for nutty, hot, crisp-tender cabbage until the next fix.
- Peanut allergy sufferers, if you are alright with any other nuts, use them as alternatives.
The Key 3 is a series of discussions with great cooks (not just professional chefs) about the three recipes or techniques they think everyone should know.