Saturday, August 8, 2009

Typhoon Cookin'

We spent most of our day off yesterday at an ultra-fun Typhoon Party at a friend's apartment - which is just as 'vintage' as ours but in a much quainter way. Theirs is ageing like the bejeweled and makeuped star of Sunset Boulevard, ours is ageing like the tenement in Rent.

Came home to find not too much of the kitchen underwater. Much better than usual for typhoon - so much for "super typhoon" predictions, this one came and went with hardly a bell or whistle.

Anyway, we're having a curry party tonight; it's been a long time since I've cooked up several curries at once and even longer since I've made curry for guests. The last few dinners we've held have involved the very popular Ethiopian doro-wot kebabs I invented. This time I'm making sevpuri chaat as an appetizer, channa masala, a Malayali coconut fish and butter chicken as entrees (and might make baingan bharta if I feel like it, or might just make Iranian salad) and gulab jamun as dessert.

I've also been reading up on increasing the umami in foods. Umami is a Japanese word meaning 'deliciousness' - what it describes is the deep, round savory flavor of the best foods. Think great wine, stinky cheese (or very hard cheese like parmesan), veal stock, good paprika, grilled onions, clarified butter, walnuts, squid oil, fish paste, good yoghurt, tomato paste, cream, soy sauce, some kinds of seaweed, even grapefruit juice and shiitake mushrooms (though many mushrooms have it), and of course dark chocolate. It's that full, rounded timpani drumbeat of flavor that is the hallmark of really awesome foods.

It's also the main flavor of MSG - which, while I'm not convinced it's as bad as everyone says it is, I try not to cook with because a.) it's artificially made and I prefer to use as many naturally-grown ingredients as possible and b.) despite lack of conclusive proof, when I was young and before I even knew what MSG was, I was a frequent victim of "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" - getting a headache after eating Chinese food in the USA. Fortunately, there are ways to bring out that full, round flavor without resorting to a white powder...just as there are ways to sweeten a dish without cane sugar or - gasp - high fructose corn syrup. For example: when making chocolate chip cookies use dark chocolate chips and add a bit of honey to the basic recipe, as well as a few tablespoons of cream. The honey heightens the effect of a sugar in a pleasing way and the cream works well with the butter to create a lovely flavor.

I've been trying to cook with umami in mind for awhile, which may be why most of my best recipes seem to involve a shot of alcohol. Julienned bamboo with minced mushrooms, red bell peppers and a few dashes of squid oil, a funky risotto with tomato paste and a splash of wine, like that. Judging from the effects - that is, my fiance gulping it all down (though he never seems to gain weight, what's up with that? - it's working. If we ever have a kid, I hope she/he gets my cooking skills and his predisposition to maintaining a healthy weight.

So I made the channa masala last night and I think it came out really well. I threw in a few things - just tiny dashes that the palate wouldn't be able to dissect and identify in that big stewed mass of curry (the sauce for channa masala is basic masala with tomatoes and onions). A splash of grapefruit juice with the lemon/tamarind I usually use (I suspect tamarind is also good for umami but haven't read that anywhere), just a half-teaspoon of a ground-nut mix we have laying around, a hint of olive oil in the ghee, a half-capful of mustard oil (it's strong stuff), a bit of paprika - I could use more of this because paprika fits in well with curry spices while the other ingredients don't, and need to be added in only tiny amounts. Mustard oil does, but only if you're cooking a specific set of mostly Bengali dishes.

I'm not sure if the little bits of this-n-that helped, but from tasting it this morning they sure didn't hurt. The channa masala has the resounding flavor that I was going for; not as perfect as the best channa I've ever made (for a random dinner party years ago, when I wasn't that great a cook and just got lucky) but far, far better than anything you'll find at an Indian restaurant here and much better than my earliest attempts at Indian cooking.

The thing is, I really am not convinced the little dashes of things did much at all. While cooking with umami in mind, I realized that Indian food is full of umami bombs that work very well if you just stick to the recipe. Instead of just using hot pepper to spice a dish, all sorts of flavors are used, which create a fuller, deeper spice flavor. Use of clarified butter as an oil/shortening and cooking onions and garlic in it before adding the main ingredients also works. So does frying potatoes (which is why everyone, around the world, seems to love fried potatoes. It's not the salt - it's the potato itself that gives us the flavor we crave) which are common in Indian snacks and some curries. Liberal use of yoghurt, tamarind and other ingredients boost umami flavor, and some combinations are worshipped as the gold standard of cooking, and there's a reason. It's quite clear, when you consider the effects of umami, why of all the biriyanis, mutton is the most popular, why vindaloo must be made with pork to get the full flavor (something about how the pork fat interacts with the vinegar), why butter chicken seems to be the most addictive chicken curry dish, and why sambar (full of grilled-then-cooked lentils) is such a hit in southern India.

So really, for any Indian recipes you want to try out, just get a great cook - almost any Indian mom will do - to show you how and stick to what she tells you. It doesn't really get better than that.

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