How to Cook Indian


You’ve heard of Sanjeev Kapoor, right? You know, the author of more than three dozen cookbooks, host of Asia’s longest-running cooking show (actually, television program of any kind!), owner of multiple restaurants and brains behind the eponymous website that registers 25 million hits per month?


Well, to be honest, if you’re not Indian I’m not surprised, since despite his mammoth fame and fortune in his own country he’s all but unknown abroad. That’s all set to change, though, thanks to the release of his very first cookbook for the western market: How to Cook Indian (aka Mastering the Art of Indian Cooking in the UK), published earlier this year by Abrams.

Before I tell you about the book, though, I have a confession to make. This isn’t the first I’ve heard of Sanjeev. In fact, I’ve been a closet fan of his for more than a decade. Not only that, but I owe most of my Indian cooking skills to him. That’s right, Sanjeev Kapoor taught me far more about cooking Indian than people like Madhur Jaffrey, Julie Sahni or any of the other subcontinental names on my bookshelf. That’s because at the time I discovered Sanjeev, I didn’t have any of those books.

What I did have circa 2000 was a huge passion for Indian food, and an even huger frustration that my attempts to cook it always ended in mediocrity. Regardless of what I tried to make, Indian food in my hands always ended up tasting like, well, something attempting to taste Indian. It probably didn’t help that the one ‘authentic’ Indian cookbook I owned was written by Hari Krishnas, who eschew onions and garlic for religious reasons, and let’s not even talk about the majority of western recipes, with their reckless use of bottled curry powder and Major Grey’s mango chutney.

Eventually in my quest to unlock the secrets of Indian cooking I turned to the internet. Today, of course, that would be no problem; anyone wanting to learn more about Indian food need only tune into the thousands of Indian food blogs, forums and videos out there. In those days, however, finding reliable information on exotic cuisines was a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled upon Sanjeev Kapoor’s website, a seemingly bottomless repository of recipes for everything from lassis to kebabs written by a well-known Indian chef for an Indian audience. It didn’t take me long to realize I’d hit the jackpot.

Naturally there were some hurdles to overcome in using Sanjeev’s recipes, such as his casual use of Hindi names for many common Indian ingredients. I simply had to learn that elaichi means cardamom, dhania is coriander and curd refers to yogurt. Some techniques were foreign to me too, such as grinding things into pastes, but I just put my blender to work and hoped for the best. The trickiest thing was finding where to buy all these strange new ingredients.

But oh my, the effort was worth it. His recipes were phenomenal, producing Indian food to rival the best we’d ever eaten. It was a lot of work, granted—particularly since I was struggling to adapt western a kitchen to Indian tasks—but the flavors were bigger, deeper and more sophisticated than I thought I’d ever find coming out of my own kitchen. And what was even more valuable than the recipes themselves was the know-how I gleaned: how much richer garlic and ginger taste when they’re blended to a paste before being sautéed, how much more fragrant whole spices taste than dusty powders, how frying aromatics in a little oil and stirring it in to a dish right before serving unlocks untold depths of flavor. This was the key to Indian cooking, and I took it all greedily on board.

Even after I began collecting Indian cookbooks from other authors I kept using Sanjeev’s website, often checking other versions of a dish against his, or just looking for something new and inspiring. With him I knew I was always getting the real deal, not something watered down for western tastes or dietary sensibilities.

You can imagine, then, how thrilled I was to hear he was writing a cookbook for the western market. Finally, I’d have all my favorite Sanjeev Kapoor recipes on paper! No more mustard seeds splattering all over my computer screen! I even knew immediately which recipe I’d share with you: his Murgh Makhani, butter chicken, which with its succulent home-roasted tandoori chicken with an addictive tomato-honey-cream sauce ranks among the best versions of this classic dish I’ve eaten anywhere. We actually started eating the butter chicken almost weekly in anticipation of the book’s release, and of course so I could perfect the recipe.

When the book arrived, though, I could hardly believe my eyes: the butter chicken recipe inside was substantially different from the one I’ve been making for years. Not only was it missing several key ingredients, several others had been scaled back so drastically I wondered how this could possibly be the same dish. Further reading confirmed what I feared: this book has been heavily adapted for its new market. Some of the adaptations were no doubt necessary, as western kitchens are simply not outfitted with the same equipment as Indian kitchens and new techniques had to be devised. Other adaptations, at least from my perspective, are not so welcome: spice mixtures have been simplified, heat has been toned down, pungent aromatics like garlic and ginger have been reduced, and quantities of high-calorie ingredients like butter, cream and nuts have been slashed across the board. While I’m sure the results are still good, I can’t help feeling the publishers have underestimated their target market in assuming that people who go out of their way to buy Indian cookbooks can’t handle real Indian flavors (or calorie counts). At the very least a range of options could have been provided so that people would have the choice to make a dish pungent or tame, spicy or mild, rich or lean.

Overall, then, I have to give this book a very mixed review. For die-hard Sanjeev Kapoor fans it’s going to be a disappointment, what with all the trimming and toning down of his tried-and-true recipes. Lacking extensive information on ingredients, techniques, culture and history it’s also probably not a good beginner’s tome; if you’re looking to learn the basics of Indian cuisine I’d start elsewhere, like Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking. That said, for people who are already reasonably comfortable cooking Indian food, are confident enough in their ability to tweak things to their tastes and are ready to expand their horizons, I’d say this is a great addition to a cookbook library. The scope alone is massive, containing more than 500 recipes for everything from classics to Sanjeev signatures, and I have enough faith in him to know that even in their tweaked form his recipes are bound to impress. And of course you can always cross-reference things with his website to see what might have been changed and how. That’s certainly what I’ll be doing.

But with the butter chicken, at least, you won’t have to. Here’s my adaptation of his original recipe, rich with cream and honey, spicy with chilies and studded with chunks of aromatic, charred-around-the-edges tandoori chicken. I guarantee it’ll make a fan out of you too.

Sanjeev Kapoor’s Butter Chicken

One of the most popular dishes both in India and in Indian restaurants abroad, butter chicken’s origins are murky, with some people claiming it’s the evolution of a traditional Punjabi dish, others claiming it was invented in the 1950s in a tandoori restaurant in Delhi, and still others that it was invented in restaurants abroad and re-exported to India. Whatever the truth, it’s popular for a good reason. Try serving it to someone who claims they don’t like Indian food and see how quickly they change their mind.

There are a couple of ingredients here that you might not have on hand unless you cook a lot of Indian food. If you can’t track down dried fenugreek leaves (called ‘kasoori methi’ and usually available with the spices in Indian markets), you can substitute a pinch of ground fenugreek seeds for a similar flavor. Likewise the mustard oil is definitely optional, but it does give another layer of flavor to the chicken. And speaking of chicken, my vote here is definitely for dark meat, since it remains much more moist and tender. That said, I’ve successfully made this with white meat too—just make sure not to overcook it either in the oven or in the sauce. As far as techniques go, do take the time to make garlic and ginger pastes as opposed to just mincing; it’s really easy to do with a mortar and pestle or else try my preferred tool, a fine Microplane grater. One final note: this sauce is really versatile. You can easily make a vegetarian dish out of this by substituting cubes of paneer or your favorite vegetables for the chicken. Shrimp works great too.

serves: 4, as part of an Indian meal
source: adapted from Sanjeev Kapoor’s How to Cook Indian and website

For the chicken:
about 1 lb. (1/2 kg) boneless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into 1 1/2-inch (3.5cm) pieces
1 teaspoon mild Indian chili powder or paprika
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt

For the marinade:
1 cup (250ml) whole-milk yogurt, drained in a cheesecloth or coffee filter for about half an hour
1 teaspoon mild Indian chili powder or paprika
2 tablespoons garlic paste
2 tablespoons ginger paste
1/2 teaspoon ground garam masala
2 tablespoons mustard oil or vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons (30g) unsalted butter, melted

For the sauce:
4 tablespoons (60g) unsalted butter
3 cardamom pods
4 cloves
6 peppercorns
1-inch (2.5cm) piece cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon garlic paste
1 tablespoon ginger paste
5 small green chilies, chopped, or to taste
2 cups (500ml) tomato puree (e.g. Italian passata)
1 tablespoon mild Indian chili powder or paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground garam masala
2 tablespoons mild honey
1/2 teaspoon powdered dried fenugreek leaves* (kasoori methi) or 1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1 cup (250ml) light or heavy cream
cayenne pepper, to taste

chopped fresh cilantro (coriander), for garnish

In a medium bowl combine the chicken pieces with chili powder, lemon juice and salt and set aside for 30 minutes. Stir in all the marinade ingredients except the butter, mixing well to ensure the chicken is well coated. Cover and refrigerate for three to four hours (overnight is fine too).

Preheat the broiler or oven to its maximum setting. Thread the chicken onto skewers (4-5 pieces per skewer) and place in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with well-oiled aluminum foil (I’ve also done it without skewers, but they make turning the chicken easier). If using the oven, position a rack near the top. Roast, turning once or twice, for 8-10 minutes, basting about halfway through with the melted butter, until the chicken pieces are just cooked through and speckled around the edges with black. When cool enough to handle, remove the chicken pieces from the skewers and set aside.

To make the sauce, melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add the cardamom, cloves, peppercorns and cinnamon and sauté for two minutes. Add garlic and ginger pastes and chopped green chillies, and cook, stirring, for one minute more. Add tomato puree, chili powder, garam masala powder, salt to taste and one cup of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until slightly thickened. Add 2 tablespoons honey, powdered fenugreek leaves and cream. Simmer 10 minutes more or until sauce has thickened again. Adjust seasoning, adding more salt to taste and cayenne pepper for additional heat. Fish out the whole spices if you like (I never bother). Add cooked chicken pieces and simmer just to heat through.  Serve hot, sprinkled with chopped cilantro and accompanied with flatbread or rice.

*Dried fenugreek leaves usually come whole; to powder them toast in a dry skillet or in the oven until crisp, then rub between your fingers.

Note: I received this book as a complimentary review copy from Abrams Books.