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?

No?!

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.

58 thoughts on “How to Cook Indian

  1. I just came across your blog and find it fantastic! As I was reading your holy grail post on cookies, this one on Indian cooking appeared and I was thrilled! My best friend, who's getting married in India this week, introduced me to Indian cuisine and ever since, I've been very inspired to cook Indian. For favorite cuisine, I oscillate between Asian (very broadly) and Indian but as little as I know about it, I gravitate towards the Indian. I'm sure you would agree with me, it is mesmerizing! However, I find it difficult to come across many of the spices or ingredients that Sanjeev Kapoor's website recipes call for. For example, if you're not in NYC or London (but Belgium), where would you go for "Asafoetida" or other little known (to me) spices? I am tempted to skip on some that I don't know of or don't have, but will probably miss out on some great flavors. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for this post! Do you know if the web recipes have changed, or are they still the same ones you've been using?They might have undergone a few tweaks over the years, but they're still pretty much the same – only there are a lot more of them now! -m

  3. Lovely Post! Your views regarding whole spices versus spice powders, minced ginger and garlic versus their pastes are absolutely spot on! I speak with some authority since I am Indian and have grown up cooking with these techniques as my guide to recreate a taste of home in my american kitchen!Also- Magic bullet is very handy in creating instant pastes/powders and the links for indian cooking.

  4. So sad that they watered down How to Cook Indian. Those of us who want to learn about other cultures and cuisines want authenticity, not the western version. I'm excited to check out Classic Indian Cooking- thanks for the tip.

  5. Indian cooking is my latest obsession, so thanks for all the tips and the link to the website. It is sad that they don't trust readers enough to tone down recipes themselves if they want to. I sometimes cut fat in recipes, but I know what I'm doing and if I feel festive I stick to original amounts. Garlic and ginger paste is my new favourite ingredient. I minced it in big quantities (using a meat mincer I own, who happens to work for ginger and garlic as well) once, and have frozen it into a thin layer in a ziplock bag. When I need some I just snap off a corner: works great.

  6. wow what a great and thoughtful review – probably one of the best reviews (on anything) i've ever read.i've recently moved to india and have been here for 3 months now (9 more to go) – slowly, i'm starting to find out what indian dishes i enjoy and am excited about learning to cook some while i'm here. this cookbook sounds like it would be a great addition to my kitchen for my return home – but i must admit i'm dissapointed to here that it's been adapted for western kitchens. after having the real dishes i'd love to have the real recipes….thank for the introduction to sanjeev kapoor – i'll be certain to check out his website!!http://www.fromindia–withlove.blogspot.com

  7. Though I cook very little myself, I grew up eating and learning to appreciate well prepared food by my food-loving (Greek) mother. I greatly enjoy reading your posts and sucking in the though, care and enthusiasm that you put into cooking and eating. The richness of experience that these two acts alone provide you with is fascinating.

  8. I found this review very informative and interesting. I LOVE Indian food and it is one of my obsessions to perfect dishes, vegan style. I've too found that cooking at home can leave ones expectation a little flat upon serving. Indian cooking seems to understand that longer cooking times (30mins seems to be the cut off point for most of us in the West!), the use of a vairety of cooking pots…kadhai's, thick indian woks…and as you say adding ingredients at different times, make their food complex and satisying, and as you say, ingredients we not yet aware that exist. I was fortunate enough to have a day of one to one cooking with Indian chef & author, Monisha Bharadwaj and she imparted many useful tips. I recommend her book wholeheartedly. Thank you for tagging a new chef for me. I shall read Mr Kapoors website with great interest. How exciting.

  9. You are right about Sanjeev Kapoor's website and its variety of recipes. Whenever I can't call up mum for a recipe, this is where I go. If you are not intimidated by Indian cooking (and I know you aren't), another great book is 'Prashad: Cooking with Indian Masters'. It has recipes from some of the most talented Indian chefs and the recipes are not toned down. Here is the Amazon UK Link.Hi Heena! I actually bought Prashad a couple of months ago, but I haven't made anything from it yet. I'm glad to hear a recommendation for it – what recipes in particular do you like? -m

  10. A great review. I bought the book a couple months ago at an event in DC and got it signed by Sanjeev. He's a super nice guy and very talent cook. His recipes are great. My only misgiving is that the book lacks the photography that makes lesser Indian cookbooks fun to browse.

  11. I have What's Cooking Indian by Shehzad Husain. The binding is broken, there's drops of stuff all over the pages & I love it. I do need to try your butter chicken. Never did it with honey. Thanks for the website…oh, and one more thing..Asafoetida makes me shudder. How can anyone eat that stuff?

  12. I have another great, authentic Indian cookbook, 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer. I've had nothing but success with it and with literally 660 recipes (a bulk of which are vegetarian, all utterly delicious), I'm only starting to familiarize myself with all the regional variety within the broad category of "Indian" cooking. Thanks for the butter chicken recipe. I will try it soon!

  13. I bought my first Indian cookbook in 1982 – Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery (which accompanied a BBC series) – and I don't have a single cookbook in my 100+ collection that I have made so many dishes from, and with total pleasure. When my husband turned forty, twenty years ago, I cooked an Indian buffet supper for 25 people, and every single dish was a huge success. (I still make her Masaledar Sem on a regular basis, and her Malaidar UInday, as well as her Shahi Korma, which is divine..oh, and her Apple, Peach and Apricot Chutney is sensational!)I am off to visit Sanjeev Kapoor's website!

  14. i do love your reviews of cookbooks, your write ups of recipes you've created…..but what i really want to see? your cookbook book shelf or should i say library? i bet you've got quite the collection.i will print this recipe out for later…there are a lot of butter chicken recipes out there.

  15. "Further reading confirmed what I feared: this book has been heavily adapted for its new market."Don't blame this solely to the author of the cook book (Sanjeev). Indian recipes has to be adjusted according to the taste of the Western consumers. Perhaps, the advisers or editors of the cook book let Indian cooking be accommodated to Western consumers' palate by influencing Indian cooking with Western culture and tradition.

  16. thank you for this honest review! i've been wanting to experiment with indian food, and actually looked at this book – it's nice to know that it's not exactly the same as some of his older recipes. can't wait try this butter chicken – sounds phenomenal.

  17. I have somewhat shorter experience with cooking Indian food, and I am still collecting every bit of information I can get my hands on. You are right, I was not familiar with chef Kapoor, but thanks to you, his website is included in my favorites:)I learned about making garlic and ginger pastes a few years ago, and even acquired a huge bag of fenugreek leaves for a recipe (the store had nothing smaller, and now I have to find as many recipes as I can to use it fast!)I have made several versions of Butter Chicken and I am really interested to taste this one, as I trust your judgment.Thanks for such a detailed and honest review!

  18. So do you eat the whole spices when you leave them in?I normally pick out any I can find before serving, but warn people that they might encounter the ones I couldn't. I personally don't like to eat them, but there are certainly others who do! -m

  19. Thanks for your introduction to Sanjeev Kapoor, I never heard of him. I don't often cook Indian because I have had bad experience with watered down recipes, I like food spicy!

  20. I got to know Chef Sanjeev Kapoor more with this post. Plus some more about Indian cooking. I like spicy foods and i love how Indian chefs prepare their dishes. I definitely would try this Indian butter recipe. BTW, is the book available online?

  21. I just made this recipe for butter chicken and couldn't be happier. It had all the wonderful Indian flavor I look for in an authentic recipe, and wasn't hard at all. Thanks!

  22. I know what you mean. I am usually of the purist, cut-no-corners school. If i have to toast and grind my spice mix, i will. But I recently borrowed a copy of Madhur Jaffrey's Curry Easy (which i think is available only in the UK? Does anyone know if it's available in US under a diff name??) and i must admit i was seduced by the seeming EASE of everything and how it all SOUNDS delicious enough (which has sth to do with the abundant lush photos, i'm sure).I'm a bit appalled by myself haha, and am wondering if i will regret buying this. For example, i'm not even halfway through the book, and have not at all cooked from it, but i already noticed that cumin & chilli seems to be the default spice mix. I don't expect the simplified version to taste as good as the real thing, but is it an acceptable compromise?Do you, or anyone else, have experience with this book, or any of her books for that matter?

  23. I loved recipes in this book – they are lighter than usual but still perfectly authentic."The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking" by Yamuna Devi. She was the chef for an Indian spiritual leader and these are the recipes she made for him. There are some really unusual things, like a royal recipe for "sea foam" – not the candy we know but something made with actual foam from the sea; sandlewood tea, and lots of regular delicious Indian food.

  24. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon. Also found this is interesting.

  25. I made this last night with seitan instead of chicken (vegetarian household), and it was ridiculously good. I think paneer cheese would be delicious in this sauce as well, but the fat content would be considerably higher ;). Thanks for the wonderful recipe!

  26. What a great page! It's so interesting and it's awesome to learn how you cook like an Indian! I will try many recipes and tell you about my experience! Thank you for your inspiration.

  27. Indian food for me, is very interesting and novel.Your picture was so beautiful, and I'm drooling.Weekend at home, be sure to try doing it.Hope to succeed.

  28. I miss you too! So much.I've made a vegetarian version of this dish countless times since you posted it (with paneer).

  29. Hi guys, thank you for such sweet, sweet comments! I promise I'm not gone forever. Life has just gotten in the way for a few months, the pesky thing. It makes me sad to be away from here for so long, but hopefully it won't be for much longer… xo -m

  30. I love almost all kind of indian dishes but i am against the use of excess masala and oil in the foods expecially non veg as seen in almost every indian household.

  31. Oh wow, I can't believe I only now found your blog! It's fantastic…love your writing style and your photos are stunning. Great post — Indian food is a favorite in my house and this book sounds like a must-have.

  32. I never tried indian recipe yet but I heard that it is really good things about indian food, and would love to try it soon….I know that most of indian recipe are hot which I do really like.

  33. Hi, Melissa!I made this recipe last night, and it is fantastic! I make curries frequently and consider myself rather adept, but the few new techniques I picked up from this recipe made it so much better. Thanks so much for sharing — if you have any other similarly tweaked recipes I would love to know about them!

  34. I went to an Indian cuisine restaurant and I was very surprised that I liked it so much. I even liked their shake even though I was taken back when the waiter said it was made of goat milk but very delicious. This looks like a good recipe I'll have to try it : )xoxo aleyhttp://a-hearts.blogspot.com/

  35. Hey, i was quite happy to read your blog post as well as all the comments, all the excitement over Indian food. In tune with the geographical division, we have also classified our food into 4 main themes, all of them varying wildly in terms of flavors and texture. Wheat dominates the North Indian cuisine, Rice the South Indian, The West Indian cuisine is combination of pulses, and sweets and fresh water fish a specialty in the Eastern Indian cooking.Enjoy Sanjeev Kapoor's book, he is quite consistent, but you will be amazed to find several other authors too, who are more specialized.

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